The biodiversity crisis—or more bluntly, the Sixth Great Extinction—has become a bit of a theme on my newsletter, Just Two Things. And this can be thought of as a companion to the post published here yesterday.
The New Scientist has a piece (which seems to be outside of its paywall) on what to do to start repairing some of the damage to nature. It’s an urgent task. This is they way it sets the scene:
The numbers are stark, whichever ones you choose. More than 70 per cent of ice-free land is now under human control and increasingly degraded. The mass of human-made infrastructure exceeds all biomass. Humans and domesticated animals make up more than 90 per cent of the mammalian mass on the planet. Our actions threaten about a million species – 1 in 8 – with extinction (see “Biodiversity: A status report“).
All that has happened in a blink of an eye, geologically speaking. “If you compare Earth’s history to a calendar year, we have used one-third of its natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds,” [UN Secretary-General Antonio] Guterres said in Paris.
The Great Restoration
The good news—if it can be called ‘good’—is that although we don’t have much time, the situation isn’t yet catastrophic. There are things that can be done, provided we start now. (And how many times does this need to be said?) We need to turn the ‘Great Acceleration’ in our plundering of nature into a ‘Great Restoration.’
The ‘rescue plan for nature’ has a number of elements.
First, we need to expand the amount of ‘protected land’ that is given over to nature. There’s history here, and it’s not encouraging. The Convention of Biological Diversity [CBD] (a UN body) met in Aichi in Japan in 2010 and agreed to protect 17% of land and freshwater and 10% of oceans by 2020. The actual numbers are 15% and 7.5%, but the protected areas are small and often poorly manager. The science says we need to ramp this up to 30% on land and sea: 30 by ‘30 (2030) is the new target.
The second building block is restoration. This can range from passive rewilding—just getting out of the way—to active engineering of entire landscapes with mass planting of trees, reintroduction of species, removal of alien species, and of intrusive infrastructure such as dams. It can be done badly, of course, but we now know a lot about how to do it well:
“We have decades of experience with restoration” [according to Tim Chistoperson of UNEP]. “We know enough. We don’t know everything, and we will find out more as we go along. But we know enough to get started. It’s one of those situations where you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The headline target is to restore 2% of the Earth’s land surface over the next decade—an area about the size of India. The upfront cost is of the order of $1 trillion, but the returns are high. It seems that countries are already committed to this.
Third, we need better biodiversity targets. These are up for agreement at the 2021 meeting of the CBD in China. Again, the upfront costs are high—$700 billion—but the returns are good. “Every dollar spent will accrue between $3 and $75 of economic benefits from ecosystem goods and services,” says Elizabeth Mrema, the CBD’s executive secretary.
The final element here is that biodiversity and climate change are closely linked. We won’t succeed at one without succeeding at the other. And for the first time, the political will seems to be there, with support from financial institutions such as the World Bank.
The New Scientist article doesn’t mention it, but it’s also exactly the right time to be investing in projects with high upfront costs and strong rates of return. Globally, we are awash with money, interest rates are underwater, and capital investment is a perfect vehicle to support economic recovery from the pandemic.
A version of this post first appeared on my Substack newsletter Just Two Things.