Recently, Netflix released Sir David Attenborough’s newest documentary, A Life On Our Planet, leaving viewers collectively galvanised to make a change. Created in partnership with WWF, the film documents pivotal points in Attenborough’s career, and the changes that have happened to our natural world throughout that time. The documentary came at a good time – 2020 marks the end of the UN Decade of Biodiversity, yet the world has failed to meet a single one of the targets laid out.
Biodiversity was a term that came up again and again in the documentary, as viewers were reminded how biodiversity loss is a huge threat to the planet. In fact, biodiversity loss has been highlighted as 3rd biggest risk to the world both in terms of likelihood and severity this year, ahead of infectious diseases, terror attacks and interstate conflict. Biodiversity is the abundance and variety of life on earth, and humans are entirely dependent on global biodiversity for the air we breath, the food we eat and the water we drink. Almost half of global GDP – around €40 trillion – depends on nature and the services it provides, so its importance cannot be overstated. In Europe alone, biodiversity loss costs the continent around 3% of its GDP each year. The loss of biodiversity has reached unsafe levels across 65% of the world’s land surface – this issue must be brought to the front of global powers’ priorities sooner rather than later.
The recent COVID pandemic has brought to light just how much we rely on biodiversity for our safety and comfort, with scientists positing that the increased incidences of viruses such as Ebola, Bird Flu, Dengue Fever and COVID are exacerbated, if not caused, by biodiversity loss, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade. In addition, many cures and treatments for such diseases are found or inspired by substances found in the natural world. Without biodiversity, we may lose life-saving treatments for diseases we may not even know about yet. It is important now, more than ever, to understand what it is that causes the loss of biodiversity, and work on bringing it back.
Biodiversity loss is not only an environmental issue, it also impacts upon many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including those tacking food security, poverty, peace, justice and development. As stated by Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES, biodiversity is “a security issue in so far as loss of natural resources, especially in developing countries, can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. And it is also a moral issue, because we should not destroy the living planet.”(Guardian, Nov, 2018). Closer to home, biodiversity in green spaces is inextricably linked to mental health and wellbeing for all of us.
The key driver of biodiversity loss is conversion of land from wild space to agricultural or urbanised land. This is not simply due to population growth, but primarily due to overconsumption and overexploitation of natural resources for the existing population, especially in the world’s richest countries. Factors such as climate change also reduce the resilience of ecosystems to these pressures, increasing the likelihood they will not remain in equilibrium, leading to ecological collapse.
The introduction of invasive species (often accidentally through trade and transport) can also unbalance ecosystems, leading to the demise of others within the same ecological niche. Pollution is the final major cause of biodiversity loss.
Many of these reasons are linked, as they are all to do with the expansion of humanity into all realms of our planet, coupled with the desire for development, growth and increased consumption, often at the cost of the natural world.
Half of Earth’s habitable land is taken up for agricultural use, 77% of which is used for grazing livestock. However, while livestock take up most agricultural land, they only provide 18% of the world’s calories, and 37% of total protein, suggesting this is an inefficient use of space – it takes considerably more land and water to raise cattle (and indeed any animal for human consumption) than to grow almost any vegetable. The exact figures vary vastly depending on the production system, e.g. feedlot vs grass-fed.
Either way, of the 28,000 species threatened with extinction, 24,000 have agriculture listed as a key reason for their demise. Even land that is left for arable farming is used to feed the vast number of livestock we raise – over a third of all crops grown are used to feed livestock rather than humans, and only 55% of the world’s crop calories are directly eaten by people. This is another example to show that population growth is not an issue in and of itself – it is the way we choose to use resources (especially in richer countries) that is problematic
One thing lacking from the Attenborough documentary was a strong call to action. For many viewers, the issues were clearly laid out, but lacked tangible action points. Many watching the documentary will be the greatest contributors to global biodiversity loss – people in rich countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries. And yet, the negative impacts of this are most keenly felt in the poorest countries themselves, once again leading to an environmental justice issue where those least contributing to the problem are those most affected by it, maintaining global inequalities in wealth and quality of life.
CHANGE YOUR DIET
Projections suggest that without increasing the land we currently farm, we have enough food to feed an extra 4 billion people, provided we grow food primarily for direct human consumption, rather than feeling the world’s 70 billion livestock. By choosing a more plant-based diet, we can collectively reduce the amount of land needed to feed livestock globally, allowing more food to be used for direct human consumption. In the UK, we eat almost double the world average meat consumption per capita, and two times the protein we actually need, so there is room for a decrease in meat consumption both from an environmental and a health-based point of view. There are some suggestions that a flexiterian/plant-based diet with some animal products in may be more beneficial for the environment than a purely vegan diet (dependent on a number of factors), but what is widely accepted is that in the global north we should all be reducing out meat and dairy consumption, and buying better quality, more ethically and sustainably raised animal-based foods when we do eat them.
VOTE, SIGN PETITIONS & LOBBY GOVERNMENTS
Currently, most countries signed up to the Paris Agreement are on track to miss most or all of the targets laid out. Unfortunately, it seems all too easy for governments to prioritise growth and expansion under capitalism than more sustainable long-term goals, such as increasing biodiversity and taxing unsustainable business practises. Alone, we can choose to live as sustainably as we can, but we will never be able to make the change we need without voting in governments who prioritise our environment both within the country and via collaboration across borders. By voting for governments that will prioritise long-term solutions to our biodiversity crisis and lobbying the government we have, we have a chance to make a real change, both close to home and further afield.
BUY FROM SUSTAINABLE SOURCES
There are so many accreditations that claim to certify the sustainability of the clothes we wear, goods we buy and food we eat that it can be hard to know what is reliable and what is not. However, keeping an eye out for accreditations that guarantee the source and cultivation method of a particular object (with the knowledge that they are not infallible) can help you make better decisions when it comes to shopping. Aiming to buy only products that you need and that are sustainably sourced can help lower your environmental impact. Goods such as coffee, woodenfurniture and cotton have vast differences in their biodiversity and environmental impact depending on their growing conditions, so ensure you’re buying ethically and sustainably sourced versions, and only when you need to.
It’s tough to keep track of environmental injustices and governmental mishaps, but by donating to charities and NGOs that have made it their mission to maintain and improve biodiversity in the natural world, you can play a small part in financing the positive steps made possibly by the work of many non-profits. There are plenty of charities to choose from, and each will have its role. Find one that aligns in what you believe is highest priority and if you are able, set up a monthly donation.
There are so many ways in which we can help improve biodiversity at home, within the country and even globally, but it can often feel overwhelming and like a small drop in the ocean compared to the work that really needs to be done. Unfortunately, while global powers prioritise profits over all else, saving the world’s biodiversity is sure to be an uphill battle, but we can only do what we can do. Use your voice, share articles, papers, charities, petitions, vote for who you believe in and we may yet be able to make a change.