Why biodiversity loss and climate change are equal threats

stormyOur biggest ally will be lost if we do not protect and enhance biodiversity in forests and other systems

Robert Bloomfield

First printed in the Guardian Newspaper, Sunday 26 December 2010

Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the media and many organisations have pursued as separate narratives the issues of climate, biodiversity and sustainable development. One of the changes this year, at a UN level, has been recognition that this does not make sense.

Without protecting and enhancing biodiversity in forests and other systems we are losing our biggest ally. These living systems can lock away carbon at a fraction of the price that technical solutions for carbon storage could only do at huge cost and by expending even more energy.

Fortunately, over 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity involved 1,500 organisations across 90 governments, 388 NGOs and 21 UN agencies to help raise awarenessof the importance of biodiversity. The UN designated 2011-2020 the International Decade of Biodiversity. Among the agreements that came out of the UN’s major biodiversity meeting in Nagoya in October were commitments from 191 nations to increase the amount of the planet set aside for biodiversity protection to 17% of the land surface and 10% of the oceans.

Perhaps more importantly came increasing recognition of the econimic and health cost to humanity of biodiversity loss; not the least being the $3-4bn losses per annum associated with deforestation alone. These are losses which are actually making the World Bank and government finance ministers pick up their ears, they are losses no government can sustain indefinitely.

For the most part, people have seen biodiversity as being about saving endangered species, or setting aside special natural habitats as national parks. However the truth is that biodiversity is an issue of mainstream economic importance, with consequences that are wide-ranging; from helping mitigate floods and droughts to providing a pharmacopeia of future medicines. It is as much about how we as consumers make informed choices about the products we purchase as it is about preserving exotic animals in far away places.

This fresh perspective is at the centre of the new international agreement. All governments are called on to report on the condition of their country’s “natural capital assets”, alongside their reports to the UN and World Bank on their economic growth and GDP. The agreement calls on all private sector organisations to look at their activities and similarly report the biodiversity impact of their corporate activities.

Yet there is still a huge dislocation in the public discourse. While many scientists regard biodiversity loss as an even greater threat than climate change, when did you last hear it discussed on Channel 4 News, or see it featured on News Night or as the subject of a leader comment? (with the honourable exception of the Guardian)

The first target from Nagoya is the call for all people to understand the importance of biodiversity by 2020. Such an endeavour is no simple turning over of a new leaf, no easy New Year’s resolution. The topic needs to be covered in our education curriculum at all levels. It will require the vision from responsible government and business to ensure this issue is placed at the heart of aspirations for a successful, emergent green economy. It will require a sea change of awareness among the majority of media editors and producers that this is not only of relevance to their audiences, but that it is a central news story that will run and run for the decade to come.

• Dr Robert Bloomfield is the UK co-ordinator for the International Year of Biodiversity And Head of Innovation The Natural History Museum, London

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