Pollution, including from chemicals and waste, is a major driver of biodiversity and ecosystem change with especially devastating direct effects on freshwater and marine habitats. Plant and insect populations are dwindling as a result of the persistent usage of highly dangerous, non-selective insecticides.
Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 animal species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals. Air and soil pollution are also on the rise.
Globally, nitrogen deposition in the atmosphere is one of the most serious threats to the integrity of global biodiversity. When nitrogen is deposited on terrestrial ecosystems, a cascade of effects can occur, often resulting in overall biodiversity declines.
Reducing air and water pollution and safely managing chemicals and waste is crucial to addressing the nature crisis.
Direct exploitation of natural resources
The recent IPBES report on the sustainable use of wild species reveals that the unsustainable use of plants and animals is not just threatening the survival of one million species around the world but the livelihoods of billions of people who rely on wild species for food, fuel and income.
According to scientists, halting and reversing the degradation of lands and oceans can prevent the loss of one million endangered species. In addition, restoring only 15 per cent of ecosystems in priority areas will improve habitats, thus cutting extinctions by 60 per cent by improving habitats.
Negotiations at COP15 are expected to focus on protecting plants, animals and microbes whose genetic material is the foundation for life-saving medicines and other products. This issue is known as access and benefits sharing governed by an international accord – the Nagoya Protocol.
Delegates at COP15 will be looking at how marginalized communities, including Indigenous Peoples, can benefit from a subsistence economy – a system based on provisioning and regulating services of ecosystems for basic needs. Through their spiritual connection to the land, Indigenous Peoples play a vital protection role as guardians of biodiversity.
Invasive alien species (IAS) are animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms that have entered and established themselves in the environment outside their natural habitat. IAS have devastating impacts on native plant and animal life, causing the decline or even extinction of native species and negatively affecting ecosystems.
The global economy, with increased transport of goods and travel, has facilitated the introduction of alien species over long distances and beyond natural boundaries. The negative effects of these species on biodiversity can be intensified by climate change, habitat destruction and pollution.
IAS have contributed to nearly 40 per cent of all animal extinctions since the 17th century, where the cause is known. Meanwhile, environmental losses from introduced pests in Australia, Brazil, India, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States are estimated to reach over US$100 billion per year.
IAS is a global issue that requires international cooperation and action. Preventing the international movement of these species and rapid detection at borders is less costly than control and eradication.
How can you follow COP15?
About COP15 From December 7-19 in Montreal, Canada, 196 governments will meet to strike a landmark agreement to guide global actions on biodiversity. The framework will need to lay out an ambitious plan that addresses the key drivers of nature loss and puts us on the path to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030.
“Economic forecasts consist of investment in factories, employment rates, [gross domestic product] growth. They never mention what’s happening to the ecosystems,” said Dasgupta, who is this year’s United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation. “It really is urgent that we think about it now,” he said.
The report was the culmination of four decades of work in which Dasgupta has sought to push the boundaries of traditional economics and lay bare the connection between the health of the planet and the stability of economies.
The Economics of Biodiversity is the foundation of a growing field of what is known as natural capital accounting, in which researchers attempt to assess the value of nature. Those numbers can help governments better understand the long-term economic costs of logging, mining and other potentially destructive industries, ultimately bolstering the case for protecting the natural world.
“Sir Partha Dasgupta’s ground-breaking contributions to economics over the decades have awakened the world to the value of nature and the need to protect ecosystems which enrich our economies, our well-being and our lives,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.
Economics as part of a ‘tapestry’
Dasgupta was born in 1942 in what is now the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. (At the time, the city was part of India.) His father, the noted economist Amiya Kumar Dasgupta, had a huge influence on him and his path towards academia. After completing a bachelor’s degree in physics in Delhi, Dasgupta moved to the United Kingdom where he studied mathematics and later gained a doctorate in economics.
Through his many major contributions to economics for which he was knighted in 2002, Dasgupta has helped to shape the global debate on sustainable development and use of natural resources.
“Nature is a wondrous factory, producing a bewildering variety of goods and services at different speeds and of varying spatial coverage. Think of, for example, all the beautiful processes that shape wetlands – the birds and insects that pollinate, the water voles that dig round for food, the way tiny organisms decompose material and filter water,” said Dasgupta.
“It is a bewildering tapestry of things that are happening, many of which are unobservable. And yet they are creating the atmosphere in which humans and all living organisms can survive. The way we measure economic success or failure, the whole grammar of economics, needs to be built with this tapestry in mind.”
Affection for nature
Dasgupta traces his interest in the idea of living sustainably in a world of limited natural resources to his now classic 1969 paper On the Concept of Optimum Population. In the 1970s, Swedish economist Karl-Göran Mäler encouraged him to develop his ideas on the links between rural poverty and the state of the environment and natural resources in the world’s poorest countries, a subject that was notably absent from mainstream development economics at the time.
This led to further explorations of the relationships between population, natural resources, poverty and the environment, for which Dasgupta has become acclaimed.
“I’ve had a ball working in this field,” he said. “One reason it’s been fun is that I had no competition. Nobody else was working on it.”
Grasslands, forests and freshwater lakes are some of Dasgupta’s favourite ecosystems. He believes children should be taught nature studies from an early age and that the subject should be as compulsory as reading, writing and arithmetic. “That’s one way to generate some affection for nature. If you have affection for nature, then she is less likely to be trashed,” he said.
Dasgupta is passionate about the need to replace gross domestic product as a measure of the economic health of countries because it tells just part of the story. He argues instead for “inclusive wealth”, which not only captures financial and produced capital but also the skills in the workforce (human capital), the cohesion in society (social capital) and the value of the environment (natural capital).
This idea is embedded in the United Nations-supported System of Environmental Economic Accounting which allows countries to track environmental assets, their use in the economy, and return flows of waste and emissions.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed the Inclusive Wealth Index. Now calculated for about 163 countries, the index indicates that inclusive wealth expanded by an average of 1.8 per cent from 1992-2019, far below the rate of GDP, largely because of declines in natural capital.
Nature as a capital asset
Echoing the urgency of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation, Dasgupta’s Economics of Biodiversity warns that critical ecosystems, from coral reefs to rainforests, are nearing dangerous tipping points, with catastrophic consequences for economies and people’s well-being.
The 600-page report calls for a fundamental rethink of humanity’s relationship with nature and how it is valued, arguing that the failure to include “ecosystem services” on national balance sheets has only served to intensify exploitation of the natural world.
“[It is] about introducing nature as a capital asset into economic thinking and showing how economic possibilities are entirely dependent on this finite entity,” said Dasgupta.
About the UNEP Champions of the Earth
The UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth honours individuals, groups, and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. The annual Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour. It recognizes outstanding leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector
About the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.
The 2022 Living Planet Report, released earlier this month from the World Wildlife Fund, showed a dramatic decline in monitored populations of wildlife across the world – a 69% decline in abundance, on average, since 1970. A few days ago, I wrote about how halting, and then reversing, this decline will require far more comprehensive actions than what we typically consider as wildlife conservation. In fact, it will require a ‘whole-of-society’ approach.
While that sounds daunting, much of what needs to be done to restore wildlife and nature are transformations that we need to make anyhow for economic security and for people’s health and safety, such as the rapid transition to decarbonized power systems to maintain a stable climate.
Here I will explore one of these needed transformations to make people safer that can be done in ways that also protect or restore wildlife and nature: flood-risk management in response to rising danger from floods, fueled by climate change and other factors. At the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) next month, governments should make good on past commitments to provide funding for low-income countries to adapt to rising climate risks, including floods, and they can do this in ways that are consistent with protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems.
River flooding is already the world’s most damaging form of disaster, averaging approximately $115 billion in costs per year. The World Bank reports that 1.5 billion people worldwide are at risk from flooding, with one-third of them considered to be poor and thus particularly vulnerable to property losses, dislocation and economic disruptions.
There are several drivers of rising flood risk globally. First, new development often occurs in areas prone to flooding. A recent study projected that, between 2015 and 2030, nearly half of global urban development—500,000 km2, an area the size of Spain—will occur in areas at risk of flooding.
Second, countries with mature systems of flood-management infrastructure (e.g., dams and levees), often have underfunded maintenance and replacement. As a result, these systems are aging and deteriorating. For example, every two years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card for infrastructure in the United States and their 2021 report card gave both levees and dams a letter grade of “D. ” They noted that hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to rehabilitate structures to get them up to current standards.
Third, changes in land use are also increasing flood risk. The expansion of urban areas—with their extensive hard surfaces such as buildings, roads and parking lots—prevents rainwater from soaking into the soil, dramatically increasing rates of runoff and flood levels. Drainage systems in agricultural areas can also accelerate runoff and increase flood heights downstream.
Thus, for a variety of reasons, flood risk is rising in much of the world even if temperatures and rainfall patterns were holding steady. But they are not holding steady. The climate change we’ve experienced to date (an approximately 1.2° C increase in average global temperature) is already driving increases in flood frequency and magnitude. Scientists can now do “attribution studies” to discern the influence of climate change on the probability that a given flood event occurred. For example, the research organization World Weather Attribution studied the devastating floods in Europe in the summer of 2021, which killed over 200 people. They concluded that the warming experienced to date had increased the likelihood of a flood event of that magnitude, within a range of 20% more likely to nine times more likely.
Even if we successfully hit the most ambitious climate target (keeping warming below 1.5° C), flood losses will increase considerably. With that level of warming, the number of people exposed to river flooding is projected to increase by 50–60% and flood damages are projected to increase by 160–240% (with global losses reaching nearly US$400 billion per year). Warming of 2° C would result in a doubling of the people affected by floods and an increase in damages up to 520% compared to today. This is a surprisingly large increase in losses relative to warming of 1.5° C, underscoring that seemingly small differences in temperature can have major differences in disruption to people’s lives.
Due to this layering of rising risk on top of current vulnerabilities, keeping communities safe from flooding will need to be a major priority of governments over the next few decades. In the past, flood-risk management has most commonly focused on building dams, levees and floodwalls, designed to keep floodwaters away from people. In addition to the maintenance challenges discussed above, this strict reliance on infrastructure can have a range of unintended consequences. By preventing floodwater from spreading out on floodplains, levees can accelerate flood waves downstream, increasing risk for others. Levees and dams also can produce a misguided sense of security, leading to dramatic increases in development on what are perceived as now-protected floodplains, resulting in far higher damages if a levee fails or is overtopped. As a testament to this effect, annual flood damages in the U.S. tripled in constant dollars during the last century, even as tens of billions was spent on flood-management infrastructure.
Further, dams and levees fragment river systems and disconnect rivers from biologically productive floodplains and wetlands. The Living Planet Index revealed an 83% decline on average in freshwater-dependent vertebrate populations since 1970. Various studies have found that dams and levees are among the leading drivers of the decline of freshwater ecosystems and species.
These various limitations and unintended consequences of engineered infrastructure have led to growing calls from flood managers for a “diversified portfolio” approach.
While keeping floodwaters away from people (e.g., using levees or floodwalls) will remain necessary in many places, that strategy should be complemented by keeping people away from floodwaters, such as through more careful zoning. Flood risk also can be reduced by directing floodwaters to the places we want to flood—wetlands and floodplains—in order to take pressure off the places we don’t want to flood, such as cities and farmlands.
This diversified portfolio approach can make a critical contribution to halting, and even reversing, the decline of nature and wildlife. More careful zoning that avoids development on floodplains will not only keep people out of harm’s way, it will also reduce conversion of these key habitats. Nature-based Solutions (NbS), defined as interventions that use ecosystems or natural processes to achieve a societal goal, can combine flood management with large-scale protection or restoration of floodplains and wetlands.
Specific examples of NbS for flood management include (and see figure below):
· Protection of forests, wetlands and floodplains to store and convey floodwaters to reduce flood levels in other places we want to protect
· Reconnecting rivers with floodplains to allow floodwaters more room to spread out, by repositioning levees further away from the river and/or through features called flood bypasses.
· Using “green infrastructure” in urban areas to slow, hold back and store runoff and allow it to soak into the soil, reducing stormwater and flood risk. These features can include green roofs (vegetation on top of buildings), swales, wetlands and parks. As a bonus, these features can also make cities cooler in the summer and increase access to nature for city dwellers.
· Allowing rivers to deliver sediment to their deltas, building new land and protecting deltas and the people and agriculture that depend on them.
All of these NbS interventions can help halt the decline of freshwater wildlife. If implemented at large scales, they can contribute to the restoration of the habitats they need to recover. At COP26 in Glasgow, wealthy countries have committed to directing $40 billion a year toward climate adaptation in vulnerable countries. At COP27, countries should commit to following through on these pledges. When they do, NbS should play a major role in these adaptation projects, so that the projects needed to keep people safe can also help wildlife recover.
In subsequent posts, I’ll go deeper on these various NbS, including how they contribute to flood-risk reduction and how they contribute to the recovery of wildlife.