Experts believe the world is in the midst of the sixth great extinction, and biodiversity losses around the globe continue to mount. How did we get here?And what can be done about it?
“It seems to me that if you wait until the frogs and toads have croaked their last to take some action, you’ve missed the point.”
– Kermit the Frog
November 2013, an eclectic dinner group gathered during an innovative symposium entitled “Thinking Extinction” at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ont. Philosophers had joined leading biologists to address approaches—from captive breeding to the ethics of reviving long-extinct species to practicing medical-style conservation triage—to the growing global biodiversity crisis.
“Bringing humanities into a typically scientific discussion recognizes that all of us face questions about our role in protecting species diversity,” co-organizer and Canada Research Chair in Applied Evolutionary Ecology, Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, said. “We hope it adds new dimensions to the conversation.”
If table-talk were any evidence, it had. Renowned turtle researcher and Laurentian professor Jacqueline Litzgus was expressing frustration at a bugbear query inevitably posed by the public, industry and media: Why should we care? “I just don’t want to answer,” she lamented. “If that’s the question when we’re talking about saving a species from extinction, we’ve already failed.”
Litzgus and Stuart Pimm, esteemed professor of conservation ecology at North Carolina’s Duke University, were discussing the lack of public buy-in for saving animals other than charismatic critters such as lions, tigers and bears. In reply, Pimm floated the moral imperative to not allow any species to go extinct—further noting that because politicians, rather than qualified professionals, often decide which ones to protect, people should be universally concerned. But it was celebrated author Margaret Atwood who talked Litzgus off the ledge.
Leaning over the table, Atwood wrapped the scientist’s hands in the deft fingers that have delivered countless literary treasures. “My dear, you’re going about it all wrong,” she said quietly, “You think you have to tell people why they should care from a human perspective, but you should really be telling them why to care from the turtle’s perspective.”
A moment of silence ensued.
All gathered grasped Atwood’s abstraction for the clever reverse-engineering it represented: one needed to understand the impact of species loss on nature, in order to see how it impacts us all.
In late February 2020, as the world was just beginning to grapple with COVID-19, delegates from more than 140 countries gathered at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy. They were there to discuss a key document in the lead-up to the 15th meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity scheduled for October 2020 in Kunming, China.
Known as COP 15, the meeting in China will represent the largest global biodiversity gathering in a decade—a period of serial disappointments on the wildlife conservation front. So, expectations are high, with a desire to officially approve targets largely agreed to beforehand. The first step in this process was refining a framework produced by a Canadian and Ugandan co-chaired working group that featured five long-term goals for 2050, with intermediary milestones and targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, including proposals to protect a third of the world’s oceans and land and cut pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients fully in half. Like most UN initiatives, it was a bureaucratic gambit to avoid more bureaucracy.
The Rome proceedings were both auspicious and steeped in irony. At the last minute, they had been moved from China over coronavirus fears (less than a month later, COP 15 itself would be postponed indefinitely for the same reason; it’s currently scheduled for April 2022), and, as delegates spun their spaghetti in the capital, Italy’s north was struggling to contain an ultimately devastating outbreak of COVID-19. With a direct link between the environmental breakdown behind biodiversity loss and the emergence of zoonotic diseases (those that jump from animals to humans) laid bare by the suspected acceleration of the coronavirus’ spread from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, dialogue on the draft document was suffused with added urgency.
China quickly shuttered the Wuhan market and issued a temporary ban on others. But this ultimately begged a much larger question: would people finally take the destruction of nature more seriously in the wake of such a dire global consequence? No less an environmental luminary than Jane Goodall opined that humanity “was finished” if we failed, post-COVID-19, to adapt our food systems away from over-exploitation and deforestation.
Given subsequent actions, however, those prospects look bleak. Amid pandemic isolation and racial civil unrest, and having already rolled back 100 environmental regulations for air, water, land, wildlife and health, then-American President Donald Trump’s administration removed longstanding protections for wild birds and eliminated nearly 85 per cent of marine protected areas along the continental U.S. In Canada, likeminded conservative governments in Alberta and Ontario suspended environmental compliance and reporting for industry. Elsewhere in the world, wildlife poaching skyrocketed and forests were illegally levelled.
This grim track record mirrors humanity’s collective response to other large-scale existential threats. In the same way catastrophic climate events haven’t galvanized action on reducing atmospheric carbon, the accumulating hallmarks of soaring biodiversity losses have not inspired us to flatten that curve: not the repeated bleaching of the world’s coral reefs; not the visible-from-space slashing and burning of Amazon rainforest (responsible for a third of global forest loss in 2019—some 9.3 million acres [3.8 million hectares], the size of Switzerland); not the northern white rhino blinking out of existence; and not Singapore’s seizure of US$50 million in trafficked elephant ivory and pangolin scales. Worse, the much-ballyhooed Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), entered into gleeful force at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1993, has been similarly unable to move the needle—even a bit.
Despite some local successes, an international global biodiversity pact committed to in 2002 did not reduce the overall rate of decline. By COP 10 in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, the 196 signatories of the CBD deemed it a de facto failure in need of a reboot. That effort, which yielded 20 so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Aichi being the Japanese prefecture where Nagoya resides) aiming to achieve five broad goals under a “Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020”, is also on track to come up short. Hence that more ambitious prescription being readied for COP 15.
But having lost another decade—and thousands more species—while suffering a related and costly pandemic, where is global biodiversity governance headed? And what is Canada doing to halt its own biodiversity slide?
A Biological Meltdown
There is no better snapshot of biodiversity woes than the landmark 2019 “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IEPBS). The work of hundreds of scientists who reviewed data from 15,000 sources, the report elucidates humanity’s crucial reliance on nature for food, water, medicines, energy, livelihoods and cultural and spiritual fulfilment. It also shows this same dependence eroding nature, with species rapidly declining in both range and number. (An example: despite the loss of a quarter of North American bird fauna since 1970—an estimated 3 billion animals—industry continues to kill some 450 million to 1.1 billion birds annually). And essential services provided by ecosystems—e.g., water filtration, carbon storage, seed dispersal, pollination—are also breaking down. Having “severely altered” three-quarters of the planet’s land surface, humanity has put one million species at risk of extinction.
This eye-opening number corroborates that we’re in the midst of a planetary sixth mass extinction. The previous five, spread over a half-billion years of geological time, accrued from combined natural causes—cataclysmic meteor strikes, volcanism and atmospheric shifts. The present episode has only one root cause: Homo sapiens.
The study reported a normal extinction rate for vertebrates as two species lost per 10,000 per 100 years—or 0.1 per cent over 500 years. A conservative estimate of recent extinction rates during a similar time span, beginning in the year 1500, shows mammals at two per cent, and birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish at about 1.5 per cent.
Focusing on species extinctions, however, distracts from equally worrisome trends in population declines and extirpations (local disappearance). The 2018 World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Index shows a staggering 60-per-cent decline in wildlife populations in just 40 years (freshwater fish have the highest extinction rate worldwide among vertebrates in the 20th century). A 2017 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a third of 27,600 terrestrial vertebrate species are undergoing high degrees of population loss—even common species of supposed “low concern.” The authors suggested as many as half of the animal individuals we once shared the planet with have vanished, a “biological annihilation” in need of urgent redress. Three years later, in June 2020, these same authors’ cri de cœur rang louder after finding the extinction rate to be accelerating: some 543 terrestrial vertebrate species had disappeared during the past century and 500 more could follow in the next two decades—a combined loss equivalent to what would naturally occur in a 16,000-year period.
The ocean is also under siege. The IPBES report demonstrates how overfishing and bycatch severely affects biodiversity in two-thirds of marine environments. Since the early 1970s, five large shark species found along the eastern U.S. have declined by 97 to 99 per cent each, and a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are currently threatened. A 2020 University of British Columbia study found climate-driven ocean warming and acidification were affecting glass sponge reefs unique to the Pacific Northwest that had also seen damage by bottom trawlers and salmon farms. And the complex ecosystems of tropical coral reefs are suffering huge biodiversity losses.
Despite its large size, vast spaces, and relatively low population, Canada hasn’t been immune to such impacts. According to the 2017 WWF Living Planet Report Canada, 451 of 903 vertebrate species monitored in this country declined by an average 83 per cent between 1970 and 2014. Since Canada enacted its Species at Risk Act in 2002, 154 threatened populations have also continued to decline by an average 2.7 per cent annually (compared to declines of 1.7 per cent annually in the 30 years prior). Clearly there’s a need to re-evaluate what we’re doing in this country.
Of five key impacts on species, the most prominent remains habitat degradation, responsible for about half of losses in birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Only in mammals is habitat eclipsed by the second largest threat—invasive species and disease. The remaining three impacts—pollution, climate change and exploitation—affect all groups to similar extents. Which circles back to the Aichi Targets.
Though renewed international commitments called for more urgent and effective action, modest acceleration in policy and management efforts are unlikely to be reflected in improved trends anytime soon—Canada included. IPBES politely updated why targets for the sustainable use and conservation of nature cannot be met by current trajectories, and how goals for 2030 and beyond will only be possible through transformative changes across all sectors of society.
One of those transformations is money.
Who’s Picking up the Bill?
Unsurprisingly, we’re already paying for biodiversity loss—a US$10 trillion hit to the world economy by 2050 under a “business-as-usual” scenario according to a January 2020 WWF report. It follows that spending far less to reverse this trend would be a sound investment; indeed, the study calculates a US$490 billion annual net gain in GDP under a “global conservation” scenario.
Money is the critical determinant in achieving biodiversity goals, yet governments remain reticent to fund things with uncertain outcomes—despite data suggestive of success. A model published in the journal Nature in October 2017 shows how conservation spending during 12 years reduced biodiversity loss in 100 CBD signatory countries by almost a third. Indeed, back in 2013 at the Thinking Extinction symposium, Bridget Stutchbury, a biology professor at Toronto’s York University, noted that the average cost of improving the status of a single endangered bird species was about $1 million per year. “If open heart surgery costs $75 billion a year, the U.S. defence budget is $1.8 billion per day, and the world sees $470 billion in annual soft-drink sales, there’s plenty of money in the system,” she said. “If every taxpayer in North America gave $10 each year, we could probably save everything.”
Stutchbury wasn’t far off. Though the costs for meeting 2010 Aichi targets are largely unknown, reducing extinction risk for all globally threatened bird species was priced at USD $875 million to $1.23 billion annually over the next decade in a study published in the journal Science; when other threatened species groups were added, the cost tripled. Estimates for protecting and managing all terrestrial sites of global conservation significance ranged from USD $65.1 to $76.1 billion annually. So, meeting Aichi targets—or the more ambitious ones likely to replace them—will require worldwide conservation funding to increase by at least an order of magnitude.
Recognition of this need is reflected in a recent European Union pledge to raise €20 billion a year to boost biodiversity. Can the rest of the global community afford to do this? Can it afford not to?
Next week in Part 2 of this feature: Oh, Canada—a deep dive into this country’s poor performance on biodiversity loss and what’s being done to improve it.