Biodiversity is shrinking at an accelerated pace, with incalculable consequences such as pandemics, food shortages, and the collapse of ecosystems. For the scientists, it is crystal clear. We must change our behaviour. And do it quickly.
From space, our planet is a magical blue sphere floating in the Universe. From the perspective of an aeroplane, ten thousand metres above sea level, the view is quite different. A patchwork of crop fields in shades of green and yellow are laid out under the wings. A landscape emerges where wilderness has been pushed aside and monocultures have taken over.
Today, three quarters of the Earth’s land surface is heavily impacted by human activity. Our planet is becoming increasingly bereft of species – both animals and plants. One million of the Earth’s eight million species are under threat: 500,000 plants and animals and as many insects. But without the Earth’s species diversity, humans will fare badly.
“We would not be able to colonise the moon or Mars on our own without taking many other species with us to have a chance of survival. Biodiversity feeds us, it protects us, and we are one with it,” says Allison Perrigo, scientist and Director of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre (GGBC).
In 2004, a big tsunami occurred in the Indian Ocean. In a protected marine area in Sri Lanka, the giant wave travelled just fifty metres inland because the coral reefs were intact and had a protective effect. However, next to the protected marine area where the reefs were severely damaged, the wave travelled as far as 1500 metres inland.
“Maybe we do not realise that we need Nature before we really experience that need. We still don’t even have names for 85-90 per cent of all the species on Earth or knowledge of what they could contribute in terms of food and medicines for example,” says Allison Perrigo.
Biodiversity is important on many levels. Different species are needed to provide food, energy and access to raw materials and medicines. Genetic diversity is therefore essential. Intact habitats and ecosystems are also needed for species to be able to survive. Christine Bacon, a biologist specialising in genetics, compares an ecosystem to a complex web in which each species has a role to play.
“When you start messing with these webs, they can fall apart. We may not know what the significance of each species is in its surroundings yet. But if species disappear, entire ecosystems can collapse.”
Species emerging and disappearing is a natural part of evolution. However, the loss of species is currently at least 100 times greater than natural loss, according to the research. One reason is that plants and animals are being pushed out of their natural habitats as land is cultivated. Monocultures are taking over; housing and new infrastructure is being built. Animals are therefore being forced into closer proximity to civilisation. This results in increased contact between wild animals and people and with it an increased risk of pathogens jumping from animals to humans.
“I suppose the most obvious way that we know about this today is the current pandemic. More than 70 per cent of new diseases that emerge come from animals that have transmitted the infection to humans,” says Allison Perrigo.
In order to map biodiversity, scientist Christine Bacon studies DNA sequences. She looks at species’ resistance and specialises in how human impacts are affecting the loss of species. Her research group maps and studies genetics and filiations.
“We collect species and carry out DNA sequencing so that we can preserve species today and into the future,” she says.
If you study ecosystem services, it becomes very apparent that different species do different things. Lars Gamfeldt, researcher at the Department of Marine Sciences, has dedicated a lot of research hours to this multifunctionality.
“Certain species are important for food production, others are essential for pollination, some stabilise the soil and ensure that it is not depleted of nutrients. The more dimensions we take into account, the more important we realise that diversity is.”
According to Lars Gamfeldt, the biggest future threat is the combination of climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the increasing pressure to produce enough food for the Earth’s soon eight billion people.
“We must find better and sustainable food solutions and not, as we are doing today, over-fish and allow monocultures to force out other species,” he says.
Thanks to the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (IPBES) for example, which is the biodiversity equivalent of the UN’s IPCC, we have an idea of why biodiversity is declining so rapidly. The cause is primarily changes in land use. Natural areas are disappearing at an accelerating rate; now only 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface is relatively unaffected by human activity.
The tropical rainforests that cover approximately seven per cent of the Earth’s surface and where over half of all species live are particularly important. The Amazon rainforests are being ravaged by reckless felling at an increasing rate to create space for the cultivation of soybeans and palm oil for example. Wild animals are disappearing, and, in the worst case scenario, rainforests could turn into savanna. This devastation not only affects the local biodiversity – it can affect the climate of the entire continent.
“The loss of biodiversity not only applies at the species level, but also at other levels such as genetic diversity and ecosystem diversity. Losing genetic and ecosystem diversity can hurt us just as much, if not more, than losing individual species,” says Allison Perrigo.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Research is ongoing and knowledge is spreading. Marie Stenseke is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg and one of two co-chairs of the IPBES Multidisciplinary Expert Panel:
“Human behaviour is of course the fundamental problem, so we need to work together to find solutions and spread knowledge. Scientists contribute the biological aspects and political scientists and humanities scholars contribute knowledge about people and how society functions,” she says.
For many economically vulnerable groups, preserving biodiversity is a matter of survival.
“The IPBES global assessment highlights the fact that the loss of biodiversity in the world has led to an increase in global injustice. Over-exploitation has generated increased wealth for the already wealthy while the poor have had to foot the bill with depleted environments. This is about issues of justice and redistribution of wealth in the broadest sense. The economically vulnerable are affected the most but have almost no voice in the debate,” says Marie Stenseke.
Scientists believe that we are entering what is known as the sixth mass extinction event. The last mass extermination took place 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs died out. Species are threatened by the cultivation of wildlands, as well as excessive hunting and the trade in exotic animals for use in traditional medicines for example.
Researchers have also warned about tipping points if the negative trends seen in terms of climate change and reduction in species are not stopped: the Amazon rainforest may disappear, the Arctic ice cap melt, the Atlantic Ocean circulation could slow down, forests disappear, coral reefs die out, the break-up of Greenland’s ice sheet will intensify, the permafrost will thaw and ice will begin to break up in western and eastern Antarctica.
IPBES stands for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It was founded in 2012 and is the biodiversity equivalent of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It prepares objective assessments about the state of knowledge in this area (eight have been published to date), as well as providing key tools and methodologies for biodiversity and ecosystem services. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is the national point of contact for the IPBES in Sweden.
The IPBES’s goal is to strengthen interactions between research and policy-makers in order to preserve and sustainably cultivate nature, plants and animals. It is an intergovernmental platform and is not subject to any international convention or agreement. 137 nations are members of IPBES.
Three voices on...
...biological diversity and its accelerating decline. What are the threats? What can government agencies and organisations do to reverse this negative trend?
biologist and expert at the Forest and Agriculture Department of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation
We are facing two major threats: intensive forestry that results in clear-felling, and open landscapes with meadows and pastures becoming overgrown. The number of species on the national red list has gradually risen in the past 20 years and indicates a negative trend.
In order to halt the loss of species, more of the planet’s natural environments need to be protected, and our natural resources must be used sustainably. For example, politicians must safeguard the protection of our few remaining ancient forests, ensure the restoration of more wetlands, and create better conditions for conserving natural pastures. The use of fertilisers and chemical pesticides in agriculture needs to be reduced, and we must put a stop to overfishing.
The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation has chalked up many successes. We have saved the sea eagle and the peregrine falcon, and right now, the forest is an important issue for us. As part of our “Silent Forest” campaign, we are working to save the just over 2,000 species that call the forest home and which feature on the national red list. Our last remaining natural forests, rich in flora and fauna, must get long-term protection.
Scientific Curator at Gothenburg Botanical Garden
A major threat to biodiversity is the inability to see and take responsibility for the broader consequences of human activity. We have a lot of knowledge today, but we need to act faster.
We must continue to stimulate enthusiasm and curiosity about nature. Only through interest and appreciation can we cultivate awareness and understanding. We cannot preserve what we do not know exists. A question that I often use to illustrate these thoughts are: How many plants have you used today?
The Botanical Garden is a window onto the diversity of the plant world. It is a knowledge centre where the public, school pupils and various professions can come together to discuss, to be fascinated by, and to have their eyes opened to the natural world. The collection of plants in the Garden is a living gene bank that functions as infrastructure for research and conservation efforts, both nationally and internationally.
Head of the Natural Environment Department at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
Our land and water use is not in sufficient harmony with biodiversity. The worst development that is currently occurring is in the farmed landscape where many species – including those that were previously common – are in serious decline. We are experiencing ongoing climate change which is also having clear impacts. For example, it appears that to butterfly species have been wiped out in Sweden following the serious drought here in Sweden in 2018.
The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for coordinating many government environmental initiatives. At present, these include projects relating to wild pollinators, wetlands and the control of invasive alien species.
We are also working with financial compensation to land and water owners to ensure the protection of valuable areas of natural environment and providing grants for the care of protected natural areas; as well as offering guidance and support to government agencies and others in relation to the legislation concerning biological diversity. Other things we are responsible for include environmental monitoring and knowledge acquisition, issuing calls for research funding applications, and international partnerships.
Director of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre (GGBC)
Researcher at the Department of Marine Sciences
Researcher at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Professor of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg and one of two co-chairs of the IPBES Multidisciplinary Expert Panel: