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expert reaction to the IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services

A report launched at the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) plenary in Paris provides an overview of the global state of biodiversity and ecosystems.

Paul Reiter, retired Professor, Institut Pasteur, Paris, said :

“I’m very uncomfortable about this kind of report.

“For example, what does: “a systematic review of 15,000 scientific and government sources” really mean? What are the rules for such a review?  How do they set about an objective analysis? There are so many claims made in this field; how do they weigh one report versus another?

“A few months ago there was great press attention over a study published (in PNAS) that claimed 60% of all insect species in the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico had been wiped out by climate change. It was based on two data points, one in 1976, the other in 2013. The authors had used sticky traps and handheld nets to sample the insect fauna and concluded that 60% of the insects had been eliminated by 2° increase in temperature.

“I lived in San Juan for 14 years and, as a naturalist and professional entomologist, I enjoyed many visits to the forest.

“The one factor that should have been foremost in the minds of the authors of the article was that the forest had been flattened by two major hurricanes, Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998. Hugo was a borderline category 3-4 and passed right over the forest, a direct hit. Georges was a category 3 and passed about 40 km to the south but nevertheless with great destruction on one side of the mountain; shortly afterwards I tried to follow a trail on that side but it was absolutely impossible.

“Forests don’t grow up overnight. For these authors to attract so much attention worldwide without any discussion of the enormous change brought about by those two events is incomprehensible.

“The authors claimed that the wipe-out of species was the result of a 2° increase in temperature. Of course this interested me because I had paid some attention to ambient temperatures in my studies of the mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and Zika on the island. Why did temperatures increase on the mountain and not in the city. The answer is obvious: without trees it gets hotter.

“So, did the reviewers mention this publication? And if they did, how did they weigh it in comparison to other ecologic studies?”

Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology and Leader for Ecology and Evolution, University of Reading, said:

“This IPBES reports highlights how we failed in the 2010 global target to halt biodiversity loss*, and again in the revised 2020 target to do the same. As our global impacts on the natural world continue to accelerate, we cannot afford to fail a third time. We need governments to develop strong policies to tackle the impacts of intensive agriculture, as well as better quantifying overseas impacts. For example, trade agreements could be made contingent on the sustainability of imported products. As members of the public, we also have a duty to consume responsibly, using fewer products and those that do less harm to the natural world, on which the survival of our species ultimately depends.

“The American author and environmentalist Aldo Leopold once said that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent

tinkering”. Our rapid destruction of global biodiversity is far les than intelligent tinkering. We are tearing at the tapestry of Life, where every thread is deeply connected to another, and where the loss of one species can cause cascade extinctions in others. We risk losing precious plants and creatures that could hold the next medicinal cures or control new pests. Ultimately, we risk the extinction of our own species.

“There is a strong correlation between the GDP of countries and their environmental footprint, which includes biodiversity loss. Although, in theory, it is possible for a country to decouple economic growth and environmental impact, this hasn’t yet been achieved in practice. Therefore, the wealthiest countries are currently responsible for most biodiversity loss (e.g. Qatar, USA, Canada, Singapore, Australia as examples). This often includes historic destruction of national biodiversity through practices such as intensive agriculture, and also through importing products from overseas with consequent impacts on global biodiversity (e.g. through the clearing of primary rainforest to produce palm oil).

“In terms of leadership, developing strong policies to tackle the impacts of intensive agriculture are essential, as well as better quantifying overseas impacts. For example, trade agreements could be made contingent on the sustainability of imported products.”

(*the Convention for Biological Diversity)

Georgina M. Mace, FRS, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, said:

“This is the first global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. Depressingly, the headline messages about the dire and deteriorating state of the natural world remain the same. Almost all the key findings are worse than they were then. The recommendations for action are more urgent but emphasise the same things. Reversing these trends is possible but will require systemic changes across sectors. Crucially, actions and interventions limited to wildlife and conservation planning are hopelessly inadequate. Responses need to be scaled up and actions for the natural world need to be mainstreamed  into other parts of the economy, especially food and international trade, eliminating perverse subsidies and reforming economic incentives to recognise nature’s many, critical roles.

“The report has up-to-date evidence and some new very compelling figures and graphics. I highlight here two features of the new report that are important for its message, but also for concerted and coherent policy responses.

“First the assessment starts by making nature’s benefits to people explicit. Not only are these substantial – underpinning food, health and security – but importantly, they vary according to place, context, culture and prevailing values. Different people value or depend upon nature in different ways, and have different ways of responding and acting. There are values and solutions at local scale that should not be ignored. Recognising and working on solutions with people will strengthen the relevance and effectiveness of new policies and actions, compared to only focussing on top-down, large-scale interventions.

“Second, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems is a global issue that is strongly interconnected with other global changes, especially climate change, food, and energy security. It is not possible to address these pressing sustainability issues in isolation from one another.  For example, climate change is substantially affected by forest loss and agricultural practices, and the food system is a major cause of biodiversity loss, while biodiversity loss, in terms of pollinators and natural pest control, puts food security at risk. The assessment makes these connections clear and will hopefully stimulate renewed efforts towards more integrated policy responses that will avoid perverse solutions (such as large scale biomass production) and build on the evidence for long-term cost-effective ecosystem interventions.”

Dr Helaina Black, leader of the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences Group, said:

“All countries around the world have shared responsibility for maintaining and exacerbating biodiversity losses, but for very different reasons. We are tackling a crisis that was started many generations ago and which has only increased in severity through the decades as agricultural production intensified, native habitat clearing expanded and industrial pollution increased. This makes the challenge of tackling biodiversity loss two-fold – what can we do now to stop further losses from current practices and what can be done to restore habitats degraded by what has happened in the past. Equally the crises that we face with biodiversity and climate change are inseparable. The causes are the same, and the solutions need to be shared – they are all about the actions of people.

“In Scotland, our ancestors drained peatlands for forestry with major detrimental effects not only on native flora and fauna but also in degrading and compromising an important terrestrial carbon store. Collaborations between NGOs, companies, land managers and the Scottish Government are now restoring peatlands across Scotland to benefit future generations.

“Collective leadership will be essential in meeting the challenge of restoring terrestrial biodiversity successfully. Land has historically been managed primarily for single outcomes such as food, wood, water, energy. We need to change our thinking to accommodate the other outcomes that we need from land – other outcomes that are often less obvious but no less vital, which the IPBES report clearly sets out.

“We are at a crossroads in land use planning and management. There is a realistic opportunity to refocus and deliver what is called a ‘multifunctional’ approach which takes into account the range of outcomes that we need from land. This approach acknowledges that we need our environment for many different reasons, and we need to balance our management to support all of these. In so doing we are accepting that there will be trade-offs, for example maximum productivity may not be achievable to improve biodiversity, soil health and water quality. Sustainable land use can only truly be achieved through some form of balance in land use. Researchers globally are now being challenged to work with land manager and others to identify what this balance needs to be in different circumstances and to identify the right incentives to help manage land differently.

“The IPBES report highlights that healthy multifunctional landscapes work because of the biodiversity that lives there, and that losses of soil, habitats and biodiversity will have far-reaching consequences. We cannot continue to manage our environment with a view that degradation does not matter if we cannot see it, or if it transpires elsewhere.  The costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of tackling this degradation at the source.”

Professor Nick Ostle from Lancaster University says:

“This report is credible and timely. The evidence is overwhelming. We are witnessing global effects of human progress and its impact on life on Earth. A notable acceleration of unintended consequences for us and our world in the past 50 years. My hope is that we aren’t paralysed by this information but proactive to understand it and make changes

“The report identifies key drivers for the worrying facts presented. Conversion of natural ecosystems for agriculture, over-exploitation of our marine and land resources, climate change, pollution. The report also offers ideas to address them.

“The challenge now is to use this knowledge to make individual, national, international and global policy to effect change. This links directly with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the desire to improve human well-being globally.

“In the UK – we have the opportunity to lead and innovate now.”

Maria Azeredo de Dornelas, Reader at the University of St Andrews, said :

“A few things I noticed that I think are worth noting:

1) there is a strong emphasis on ecosystem transformation, largely associated to land use change

2) despite the huge effort involved in putting together this report, the report does not shy away from highlighting that there are many gaps in knowledge. In several places the absence of global studies is noted (for example when referring to insect declines), and often for the marine realm references are about species that are exploited by humans because we lack data for most other things.

3) the report highlights losses in populations of native species, elevated extinction rates and increasing numbers of non-natives, and also highlights homogenisation of ecosystems (that is the tendency to find the same species everywhere). The changes occurring in biodiversity are complex and nuanced.

4) the report highlights spatial heterogeneity in trends: for example forests are increasing in temperate regions and declining in the tropics.

Professor Helen Roy MBE, Individual Merit Scientist , Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said:

“The Summary for Policymakers of the IPBES Global Assessment is the conclusion of collaborative work by many experts from around the world. It is a ground-breaking overview of the global state of biodiversity and ecosystem informed by trends in direct and indirect drivers. The headline figures are bleak. The summary is essentially a statement of declines, some of which have been widely reported previously, such as global declines in pollinators, but others have received less attention, such as declines in soil organic carbon. The proportion of land altered by human activities is now reported to be a staggering 75%. Similarly concerning figures are quoted for other ecosystems. Biological communities are becoming more similar over time and areas of high endemism, such as islands, are experiencing severe native biodiversity loss as a consequence of the adverse effects of invasive alien species. The report succinctly refers to quantitative evidence where available but also transparently includes the sources of extrapolations where there are knowledge gaps. For example, when referring to insect declines, which have been the focus of much media attention over the last year, the summary provides a measured conclusion “Global trends in insect populations are not known but rapid declines have been well documented in some places.”

“As the summary opens, and subsequently provides considerable evidence, “The biosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends, is being altered to an unparalleled degree across all spatial scales.” It is clearly stated that “The goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories.” Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 will be missed but the summary outlines ambitious measures to safeguard the global environment through enhanced international cooperation and linked locally relevant action. The way in which the global assessment has been achieved provides an excellent example to follow. I had the privilege of contributing to the Europe and Central Asia Regional Assessment as a lead author. The commitment from the experts from across the region to interrogate and deliver the best available evidence was simply inspiring. There is now an urgent need for action and transformative change.”

Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said:

“Kew welcomes the IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which is a much-needed update to the first global biodiversity assessment in 2005 and includes data and insight from Kew science.

In line with Kew’s mission, we hope that the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services will inform better policies and actions in the coming decade, starting with the 2020 Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference.   It is essential that scientific research for biodiversity conservation examine and include indigenous and local knowledge, issues and priorities,  an area of capacity-building that Kew hopes to expand in coming years

In the same way that the IPCC Report on climate change has been mainstreamed, we hope that this IPBES Report can help do the same thing for biodiversity policy.  Kew is contributing to some of the key international goals mentioned in the Report, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.”

Every extinction of a species is a failure of humankind. Even long before the last individual of a species dies out, in a zoo or botanical garden, it often becomes so rare to be ‘functionally’ extinct in nature. The loss of biodiversity is therefore a much bigger problem than just counting species disappearances: it is the loss of species in our garden, our city, our country.

This report’s message is therefore very clear – what we need now is massive, transformative and globally coordinated changes across all levels of society. It confirms that that we can’t just preserve, we must reverse the trend by increasing biodiversity locally, regionally, and globally so I welcome the roadmap it sets out to address some of the challenges. .

Despite the ambitious biodiversity goals that were set by the CBD – due to be met by next year – and the great efforts and good examples, this report shows that the overall outcome is an almost complete failure. We must learn from that process in order to not make the same mistakes. We just can’t miss this chance ­– lest it be our last. “

John Spicer, Professor of Marine Zoology, University of Plymouth, said

Reading the IPBES report there is a profound sense of déjà vu – in one way our general knowledge of biodiversity decline and what we can do about it seems to have changed little since the first global attempt to tackle biodiversity loss in Rio,1992. Many of the same points made here are found in the Convention for Biological Diversity, from 1992.

“What has  changed dramatically is the pace of change: biodiversity, and what biodiversity does to sustain every human being on our planet, is being degraded or destroyed faster than ever before.  This is driven by the growing negative impact of the increasing scale of the human enterprise, what we do, and exacerbated by our inability or unwillingness to meet mitigating targets we set ourselves. These two points come out clearly in the report.

“What also comes out is something that may surprise many. Of the prioritised list of proximate drivers of biodiversity decline, climate change is only number three. Climate change is certainly one of the greatest threats that face humankind in the near future – so what does that tell us about the first and second, changes in land/sea use, and direct exploitation? The current situation is desperate and has been for some time.  In the context of our recent growing awareness (admittance?) of the dangers of climate change this report is a wake-up call to the even greater dangers of the way we alter and use biodiversity.

“The report also acts as an interim assessment on our efforts to forestall Biodiversity loss and promote sustainability through globally agreed goals. In this regard it makes sobering reading. There is good news as the Report highlights the ‘positive synergies between nature and goals on education, gender equality, reducing inequalities and promoting peace and justice.’ However, this is set against the chilling statement that ‘current negative trends in biodiversity (loss)..will undermine progress towards 80% of assessed targets of goals related to the sustainable development goals’. While this will affect all of us, the report leaves us in no doubt that, again, that it is the poor who do the suffering.

“Finally in words reminiscent of the text of the 1992 Convention for biological diversity the current report emphasises that change aimed at halting or reversing biodiversity loss will only be effective if they are ‘transformative’. Numerous strategies are proposed, some old (not incentivising biodiversity destruction) and some new. But for me the key question remains how do 7 billion human beings suddenly agree on an enlightened vision of caring for biodiversity, and so care for our own future. The answer may well have its seeds in the movement which resulted in more than 1.4 million young people around the world taking part in school strikes for climate change – it’s not 1992, and there is a new generation now.”

Professor Richard Bardgett, President of the British Ecological Society, says:

“The report lays out the scale and magnitude of the crisis we are facing. The weight of evidence of species and habitat loss, the breadth of expertise, and the number of countries agreeing the text makes the IPBES assessment impossible to ignore. 

“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear what will happen to the natural world if we continue as we are. This matters – not only for conserving the nature we see around us, but also for maintaining and increasing our own wellbeing and prosperity. Biodiversity and thriving ecosystems are critical for sustaining the natural resources on which our economy depends.

“IPBES describe themselves as seeking to do for biodiversity what the IPCC and its reports have done for climate change. They have set out the scientific evidence in ways that can inform policy and have pointed to actions that will be necessary to turn around these declines. It is now for scientists, governments and communities around the world to take up the challenge as a matter of urgency, and find, test and implement the actions that will enable nature and people to thrive.”

“My own research in the relatively unexplored world of soil illustrates just how important biodiversity is. Food crops need fertile soils, and this is influenced by the vast variety of organisms that live in the soil. The diversity of plants above ground, and the birds and mammals that live off them, also rely on a healthy, biologically diverse soil. Science can help identify land management practices that sustain biodiversity for everyone’s benefit – but we will only see real change where the right government policies and economic incentives are in place to support it.”

*The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was launched in Paris at the seventh session of the IPBES Plenary at 12:00 UK time on Monday 6th May.

Declared interests

Professor Richard Bardgett, President of the British Ecological Society: no interests

Professor John Spicer is Author of the popular book Biodiversity (2010), and co-author of the textbook Biodiversity: An introduction (2003)

Prof Helen Roy is IPBES lead author for European and Central Asia assessment

Prof Maria Azeredo de Dornelas I am a expert on biodiversity trends rather than ecosystem services, so I have focused on that side of the IPBES Global Assessment summary for policy makers

Dr Black’s DOI: Member of the British Society of Soil Science and British Ecological Society, Past member of the Intergovernmental Technical Panel for Soils, Member of the Scottish Government’s Soil Monitoring Action Plan team and Past President of BSSS, and Head of Ecological Sciences at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland.

Prof Georgine Mace was involved in the assessment as a review editor

Prof Oliver – none received

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