Archive for May, 2011

Biodiversity – what’s that again?

Small creatures play a big role

One quarter of animal species are at risk of extinction, fish are getting smaller and fewer in number, pollinators are disappearing, and naturally water-purifying ecosystems are falling apart. Faced with this genuine ecological crisis, it is no wonder that Brussels is re-launching its biodiversity strategy. The EU tried and failed to halt species loss by 2010. Now the deadline is 2020, and the stakes are even higher. Science is converging on biodiversity as it did on climate change – to tell us that we must pay now, or pay even dearer later. Insect pollination alone is worth a massive €15 billion per year to the EU.

Society will need to be co-opted in the biodiversity battle. Currently only 35% of people know what the term means. After all, we have only just got our heads around climate change, with its sense of looming disaster and weight of responsibility in our everyday actions. The two issues are inextricably linked, but biodiversity is the part of the narrative which got left behind. The prospect of butterfly varieties petering out is less threatening than the spectre of rising sea levels, floods and droughts. Convincing the public to build species/habitats loss into the doomsday narrative will be a slow and pain-staking job, but at least the story is simple and cyclical: As our climate changes more of its species/ecosystems perish, and when they perish the world is less able to manage the impacts of a changing climate.

Economic activity = biodiversity loss?

Understanding biodiversity means understanding the huge impacts of changing the way land is used. Each fragment of economic activity implies a change in land use. Wheat to maize. Mixed crop cultivation to monoculture. Rainforest to palm oil plantation. Palm oil plantation to housing development.  Housing development to factory. Population growth has exacerbated trends, but even without it, land use change – in the shape of new, expanding economic activities – is the very essence of progress and is unavoidable.

But does the expansion of one species – the human race – have to entail the eradication of others? Science tells us that we are reaching a tipping point beyond which this correlation cannot hold up. At a given point, scything through forests, replanting land and draining aquifers no longer delivers economic progress, but curtails it – given that ecosystems no longer perform the web of services which facilitate human life and prosperity. 

Unfortunately it is difficult to tell the EU’s 500m citizens and hundreds of thousands of companies to rethink their disparate economic activities in order to stop eradicating species. Their answer would be: we’re not responsible. And they would be right. Their activity alone would not eradicate any particular species, providing it could find suitable habitats elsewhere. It is the collective impact of the mix of activities in a given coastal strip, urban agglomeration or river basin which degrades an ecosystem as a whole, robbing a species of its habitats and sending it elsewhere – or gradually towards extinction.  

Regulation – part of the solution

So how then can the EU or anyone else govern trends occurring across millions of acres of land fragmented into small, privately owned parcels (even the Natura 2000 network of protected zones includes privately-owned land)?

When the effects on humans are direct enough, rules and regulations can be put in place to ban the most harmful practices, e.g. toxic substances from pesticides can be banned to prevent them ending up in the food and water that nourishes us, with positive knock-on effects (a sort of collateral un-damage) – for other species which also depend on those resources.

But these piecemeal solutions do not address the (eco-)systemic problems which are driving species into extinction. For this reason the EU strategy looks to put some land out of bounds for economic activity – 15% of degraded ecosystems must be restored by 2020, and the current protected nature zones (Natura 2000) which cover 18% of EU land must be better managed to become genuine hosts to biodiversity. These figures meet the requirements of the politically ambitious Nagoya international agreement on biodiversity; that is not to say that they are sufficient to safeguard endangered species and ecosystems.

Farmers in the hot seat

So what about the rest of the EU’s land? Is there scope for managing land use patterns beyond nature zones? It transpires that the EU does in fact have one trump card to play. Farmers. 72% of land in the EU is used for farming and forestry. And with EU farm subsidies making up around one third of farm income, the EU effectively owns them – or at least possesses a major ready-made source of leverage.

Much of the Commission’s biodiversity strategy reads like a prelude to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), describing and in a way pre-empting its likely shape.

It calls for all farm subsidies to be tied to the provision of “environmental public goods” through obligatory practices such as crop rotation and ecological set-aside, while insisting that the reformed CAP drastically scale up the percentage of EU farmland subject to biodiversity protection schemes. In doing so, it may help to enshrine expectations from CAP reform and to prevent backtracking. When agriculture ministers balk at the extra requirements on farmers, EU agriculture chief Dacian Ciolos can wave the biodiversity strategy at them and ask whether they really wish to jeopardise attempts to prevent species loss…

Of course farmers will need to be co-opted with the right combination of carrot and stick in order for this to work.  Remonstration will be vocal, but when their EU subsidies are at stake, they have little room for manoeuvre.

And besides, the modern farmer is fast becoming accustomed to the accumulating public expectations in regard to his private land. Farmers have been well apprised of the fact that they are sitting on the lion’s share of our natural capital. It is on farmland – from fallow prairies to arable monocultures – that the battle against climate change, biodiversity loss and soil and water degradation will be won and lost. So whether they like it or not, farmers are now in the political hot seat.

Do people care enough?

But this leads us back to society’s position. For farmers to care, people must care enough. The survey on biodiversity awareness reveals that once the concept is explained, more than 90% of the public believes that action must be taken to curb species loss. But what if the question were to be phrased more honestly, e.g. For the sake of protecting biodiversity, would you countenance a wholesale rethink in the way land is managed, with the potential to curtail economic expansion in certain regions/sectors, and to push up food prices in the short/medium term by constraining production?

What people are actually meant to do on a personal level is –like for climate change – by no means clear-cut. The Commission’s initial advice effectively amounts to buying non-endangered fish and using ‘green infrastructure’, i.e. going to the park. Hopefully Disney’s imminent tour de force on the value of nature (‘Pollen’) will help to kick off the debate in the way that An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change (the trailer suggests a more visually impressive spectacle than Al Gore running through graphs in a lecture hall).

The biodiversity challenge boils down to the same core questions which underpin the debate on climate change and more generally on the way we use natural resources. Can we stop and repair the damage for long enough to allow our natural capital to be replenished? Can we hold back – or even roll back – progress sufficiently to allow a transition to a world where progress can resume from a different basis? It is short-termism v long-termism. The financial crisis makes it harder to front-up the cash to fund the transition process, but at least it has cemented the necessary logic: painful restructuring measures are needed to avoid default.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti

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