The Global Biodiversity Loss Crisis – The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Learn about the challenges and solutions to address the urgent issue of biodiversity loss.

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I was thrilled to wrap up this blog on June 5th, World Environment Day. The day’s focus on “land restoration” really struck a chord with me, calling for the protection of biodiversity and the rejuvenation of ecosystems around the world.

It’s clear that these efforts are crucial in working towards Sustainable Development Goals.

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

When I ponder over biodiversity loss, I remember one of my granny’s favourite sayings. She used to say…

“…they know the price of everything and the value of nothing”

She would espouse these words, usually with a deep sigh, as she talked about someone being unnecessarily wasteful or extravagant.

Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the true meaning of those wise words (or that she was quoting Oscar Wilde). However, as I discuss the concepts of ‘eco-system services valuation’ and ‘natural capital valuation’ with the environmental course students, Granny’s words and their connotations are clear.

When looking at the actual impact on biodiversity in the UK and beyond, one begins to question our true objectives. The sad fact is that biodiversity struggles to fit into economic models; its value is far beyond that of a commodity.

Biodiversity Versus Economic Models

Putting a value on the ability to breathe clean air or enjoy watching dolphins play in clean water off a beautiful coastline is not the same as pricing up a new car or pair of trainers.

Unfortunately, we are told that we must assess the value of nature when making government and business decisions in the same way. Even if we assign a price to the services provided by nature, it doesn’t guarantee that we will make rational decisions to protect it based on our valuations.

We must consider whether we truly understand the value of everything.

A weighing scales in nature, illustrating the value of Biodiversity versus economic gain

The health of the world’s biodiversity is at stake, and it is crucial to recognise its intrinsic value beyond mere economic terms. We must act to protect biodiversity now, before it’s too late.

Biodiversity Loss and its Causes

The Earth is unique, as far as we will probably ever know. It harbours complex life.

The sheer number of coincidences and happenstances (even literally down to the planets aligning) that had to happen for this life to exist means that we are alone in the vast Universe, a tiny oasis of life in the vast void of space.

According to our current knowledge, life emerged about 3.7 billion years ago, an unimaginably long time ago (to count to 3.7 billion would take over 31 years!).

Since then, the Earth and life on it have experienced a series of shocks, from global ice ages to massive volcanic eruptions and asteroid strikes. However, in all that time, there have only been five major extinction-level events (defined by the loss of over 75% of all species on Earth in a geologically short period).

These extinction events gave rise to the life we see today, including us and the rich biodiversity with which we share the earth.

Human beings have significantly impacted biodiversity loss through activities such as population growth, urban and agricultural development, overexploitation, and pollution. These actions contribute to the depletion of natural habitats and the decline of various species, leading to the endangerment and extinction of numerous plant and animal species.

A dystopian scene of a city with extreme biodiversity loss with an elephant illustrating the human impact on nature and biodiversity

What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity encompasses the various forms of life present in a specific area, including a wide range of animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms, such as bacteria, that constitute our natural environment. These species and organisms collaborate within ecosystems, forming a complex network that sustains equilibrium and promotes life.

Biodiversity plays a crucial role in supporting essential aspects of our survival within the natural world, including food, clean water, medicine, and shelter.

Biodiversity Under Threat

Today, that rich biodiversity is under threat—not this time from natural causes but from the activities of just one of the estimated 10-14 million species that call this rocky planet on the edge of the Milky Way home. In case you hadn’t guessed already, that species is us (not the chimps).

The growth of the human population leads to habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species, all of which contribute to the decline in biodiversity.

We modestly named ourselves homo sapiens (meaning wise man), but that name seems to be a misnomer, yes we are undoubtedly clever enough to exploit fossil fuels for energy and dig up the planet for materials, but are we truly wise enough to understand, or care about the impacts of doing those?

Again, is it the case that we know the price of everything but the value of nothing?

Looking at the current state of play, it would seem so. While we fiddle at the global level, the planet continues to burn (thank you, Shakespeare!), and the fragile life that the planet’s ecosystems support continues to disappear. That is Biodiversity loss.

What is Biodiversity Loss?

Biodiversity loss involves the decrease or loss of biological diversity, which includes the variety of living organisms on the planet, their different biological levels, genetic diversity, and the natural patterns in ecosystems.

Biodiversity Loss in Numbers (Examples)

Globally, the biodiversity loss numbers are staggering. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report 2022 documented a 69% average loss in the abundance of mammal, bird, reptile, fish and amphibian species since 1970.

The populations of vertebrates living in freshwater ecosystems have declined even more, by 83% on average over the same period.

The rate of extinction is now 100-1,000 times faster than scientists would expect.

The report also highlights that the UK, which experienced widespread habitat destruction between the 17th and 19th centuries, is the most biodiversity-depleted country in the world, having lost almost half of its wildlife and plant species in this period.

The Five Main Causes of Biodiversity Loss

We can all agree that biodiversity loss is a pressing issue with far-reaching consequences for our planet’s health and stability. Several factors contribute to this alarming trend, each playing a significant role in the decline of species and ecosystems.

This section explores the five leading causes of biodiversity loss, shedding light on the critical challenges we face in preserving our natural world.

The five main causes are:

#1 Habitat loss

Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity, with only 3% of the planet’s ecosystems remaining untouched by human activity. The rapid destruction and alteration of natural habitats is a primary driver of species extinction and environmental imbalance.

Scene with significant habitat loss through deforestation

The primary causes of habitat loss include:

  • Agricultural expansion
  • Urban development
  • Logging
  • Infrastructure projects

For example, tropical forests, which house at least half of Earth’s species, are being cleared at an alarming rate of 17 million hectares per year. This deforestation reduces biodiversity and disrupts ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and water regulation, that are vital for human survival and climate stability.

Endangered Species Impact

Habitat loss impacts 85% of all species listed as threatened or endangered on the IUCN Red List. Species like the orangutan, which relies on dense forest habitats, and numerous amphibians, which depend on wetland environments, are particularly vulnerable.

The fragmentation of habitats also isolates populations, reducing genetic diversity and increasing the risk of local extinctions.

Coastal and Marine Habitats Impact

Moreover, coastal and marine habitats are not immune to these pressures. Human activities such as coastal development, pollution, and overfishing have led to the degradation of crucial marine environments, affecting species like coral reefs and mangroves, which provide essential services like storm protection and nursery grounds for fish.

Tackling Habitat Loss

Conservation efforts, including the establishment of protected areas and sustainable land-use practices, are critical in mitigating habitat loss. Effective management of these areas can help preserve biodiversity, support ecosystem services, and enhance the resilience of natural systems to climate change.

Addressing habitat loss requires global cooperation and strong policy measures to balance human needs with environmental conservation, ensuring a sustainable future for both people and wildlife.

#2 Climate change affecting biodiversity

You likely haven’t escaped the constant discussions and news reports about how climate change is contributing to biodiversity loss.

Climate change, driven by the release of carbon emissions, poses a significant threat to global biodiversity.

Rising Temperatures (Global Warming)

Worryingly, compelling evidence suggests that rising temperatures (global warming) could endanger approximately one in six species worldwide. It’s a considerable problem for global biodiversity loss, particularly in relation to its impact on coral reefs and its role in shifting the distribution of biomes and species ranges.

As the planet warms, species are exposed to unfamiliar and often extreme conditions that disrupt their natural habitats and behaviours. For example, climate change currently affects nearly 11,000 species on the IUCN Red List, increasing their risk of extinction​​.

Desolate climate change scene illustrating global warming, the impact on weather and species richness

Climate Change Impact on Weather and Species Richness

The rapid rise in global temperatures has been linked to more frequent and severe weather events, such as droughts, hurricanes, and rising sea levels, which can devastate habitats and lead to species loss. Research shows that more than 30% of species could be exposed to dangerously high temperatures by the end of this century, significantly increasing the risk of ecosystem collapse​​.

Species such as the ‘Bramble Cay Melomys’, a small rodent native to Australia, have become extinct due to climate change-induced habitat loss. Similarly, coral reefs, among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, are suffering from mass bleaching and die-offs caused by rising ocean temperatures and acidification​​.

Climate Change Impact on Species’ Physiological and Behavioural traits

The impact on biodiversity is not limited to habitat destruction. Climate change also affects species’ physiological and behavioural traits. For instance, warmer temperatures have led to skewed sex ratios in green sea turtles, with some populations producing nearly all female offspring due to higher incubation temperatures​. Such imbalances can threaten the long-term viability of species.

Tackling Climate Change

Addressing climate change will require urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement conservation strategies that enhance species’ resilience to changing environments.

Meeting international climate targets, such as those set by the Paris Agreement, is crucial to mitigating these impacts and protecting global biodiversity.

#3 Over-exploitation of Fisheries

The over-exploitation of fisheries is a genuine concern for biodiversity loss, as nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. This unsustainable practice has profound ecological and economic consequences.

Decline of Fish Stocks

For instance, the decline of crucial fish stocks such as bluefin tuna and Grand Banks cod illustrates the severe impact of overfishing on marine biodiversity. Moreover, bycatch—unintended capture of non-target species—results in the needless loss of millions of aquatic animals, including endangered species like sea turtles and seabirds.

Overfishing disrupts marine ecosystems, leading to imbalances that erode the food web and degrade habitats. For example, the decline in shark populations, which have decreased by 71% since the 1970s primarily due to overfishing, disrupts the balance of marine environments as these apex predators play a critical role in maintaining ecosystem health.

The Economic and Food Security Impact

Economically, the consequences are equally dire. Millions of people globally rely on fisheries for their livelihood and as a primary protein source. The depletion of fish stocks threatens food security and the economic stability of coastal communities.

The global fishing industry, valued at $362 billion, faces significant risks as fish populations continue to dwindle, exacerbating poverty and food shortages in many regions.​​

Tackling Over Exploitation of Fisheries

The Center for Conservation Innovation outlines several key solutions to the overexploitation of fisheries, which include:

  • Removing Harmful Subsidies and Increase Positive Incentives

  • Increasing Adaptive Fisheries Management

  • Improving global and Domestic Fishing Regulations

  • Avoiding Heavy Reliance on Aquaculture

  • Expounding on the Use of Market-Based Instruments

  • Investing in Ecosystem Restoration and Protected Areas

Implementing these strategies can ensure the long-term health of our marine ecosystems and the livelihoods that depend on them. However, due to the complexity of said solutions, addressing overfishing will require international cooperation and the widespread adoption of sustainable fishing practices.

#4 The introduction of invasive species at the expense of native species

The introduction of invasive species, also known as alien species, poses a significant threat to biodiversity by diminishing species richness and driving species loss. These invasive species outcompete native flora and fauna, disrupting ecosystems and leading to declining plant and animal populations.

The impact on endangered species is particularly severe, as these vulnerable populations struggle to survive amid increasing competition and habitat alteration.

Animal Species Impact (Example)

Over the years, the introduction of non-native animal species into the UK has emerged as a considerable ecological concern, posing challenges to the local ecosystems and native species.

One such invasive species, the non-native grey squirrel, has profoundly impacted the local wildlife.

This introduction has led to a common occurrence of grey squirrels, pushing our native red squirrels into increasingly fewer habitats. The displacement of red squirrels serves as a stark reminder of the delicate balance within our ecosystems and the urgent need for effective management of invasive species.

A red squirrel (invasive species) taking on a grey squirrel (native species)

Plant Species Impact (Example)

Invasive diseases are another major threat to biodiversity in the UK. One pressing concern is Ash Dieback, a fungus that originated in Asia and now poses a significant threat to the UK’s ash trees.

It is estimated that Ash Dieback will result in the loss of 80% of all UK ash trees, costing the UK economy an estimated £15 billion. This widespread devastation highlights the critical importance of biosecurity measures and proactive disease management to protect our native plant species and their ecosystems.

#5 Pollution

Pollution is a significant driver of biodiversity loss, with marine plastic pollution and atmospheric nitrogen deposition among the most critical threats.

Marine Plastic Pollution

Marine plastic pollution has surged tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 animal species globally.

Plastic debris, which takes hundreds of years to degrade, often breaks down into microplastics, posing severe risks to marine life. For instance, around 50-75 trillion plastic pieces (which means many more trillions of microplastic particles) are currently floating in the world’s oceans, causing entanglement, ingestion, and habitat disruption among marine species.

Marine Plastic Pollution scene, with plastic pollution in the sea surrounding marine life - illustrating the impact of plastic polution on marine life

Impact on Species

Many species like seabirds, turtles, and fish regularly ingest plastic, mistaking it for food, which can lead to starvation, internal injuries, and even death.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a stark example, harbouring massive amounts of plastic waste that affect marine ecosystems. Moreover, plastic pollution like this can facilitate the transport of invasive species, further threatening native species and marine biodiversity by disrupting local ecosystems.

Nitrogen Deposition

In addition to marine plastic pollution, nitrogen deposition from industrial and agricultural activities severely threatens global biodiversity.

Excessive nitrogen in the atmosphere can lead to nutrient imbalances in various ecosystems, causing harmful algal blooms in aquatic environments and altering soil chemistry, which negatively impacts plant diversity and health​.

As with other biodiversity loss issues, addressing pollution requires global cooperation and urgent action. We must reduce plastic production, improve waste management, and regulate industrial emissions to mitigate their impact on biodiversity.

The Price of Everything: The Impact of Biodiversity Loss

With all that we know about biodiversity loss and the possible solutions, I read with interest a couple of recent headlines; one was bemoaning the lack of investment in cleaning up England’s filthy rivers despite only 16% of them being of the required good ecological health.

The other discussed how Heineken has grubbed up 300 acres of orchard to make the land more valuable to potential buyers. As I read these headline my gran’s words came back to me again.

Both of these and many more examples are happening despite the UK being one of the most biodiversity-denuded countries in the world. Less than half of its biodiversity is left, far below the global average of 75%.

The cost to clean up England’s rivers has recently been calculated at a hefty £51 billion. Apparently, though, that would deliver £64bn in monetisable benefits.

Has that driven the desperately needed investment?

No, instead, we allow raw sewage to be poured into them at the rate of 825 spills a day! So why don’t we take appropriate action when we know the benefits it would bring?

I think the sad fact is that we just don’t value our natural environment enough to make it an addressable priority. The lack of value we place on biodiversity is not just confined to the UK, though.

Apparently, we can put a dollar sign on the services provided by the world’s forests, which are estimated at a not insubstantial $150 trillion.

Without those services, the Earth would become a very hostile place, likely to be pretty much uninhabitable for all. Has that stopped us from systematically chopping the world’s forests down? No, it hasn’t.

Since the onset of the industrial era, forests have declined by 32% and the rate of loss in some key areas is actually accelerating.  Much of the loss has been down to growing crops, raising livestock, and use for fuelwood.

It seems that although we can put a price on the forests’ services, they are worth more to us chopped down, at least in the short term, until their absence starts to make life difficult for us!

Disconnected From Nature

The examples underscore the issue with our natural environment. We have become disconnected from it, treating it as our property to exploit and discard at will. As a result, biodiversity is declining rapidly.

So what? We are the ‘wise man’ – we can use our undoubted intelligence to adapt to the loss of the planet’s biodiversity, can’t we?

This was the concept behind the film ‘Blade Runner 2049’, set in a dystopian future where we have destroyed the planet’s ecosystems. There might be nothing left, but we adapt and survive on a barren synthetic planet, but it is hardly a healthy, appealing view of the future!

It is hard to imagine living on a desolate, desert planet with no bird song or buzz of insects and having to rely on synthetic animals for company!

Desolate desert planet that continued biodiversity loss could bring

Tackling Biodiversity Loss: Global Efforts

Aichi Biodiversity Targets

There have been ongoing efforts to address the global decline in biodiversity. In fact, 196 countries agreed to the Global Convention on Biological Diversity, which established 20 targets comprising 60 separate elements, also known as the Aichi biodiversity targets.

These targets have served as a framework to minimise the effects on biodiversity and halt its decline, with the goal of achieving these targets by 2020.

How many do you think that the world achieved? Drumroll please…

Of the 60 elements, just seven were achieved, and all 20 targets were missed – that’s some achievement!!

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

Don’t worry though, there is another, perhaps (to quote Baldrick) a more cunning plan in place! More commitments were made in 2022 known as the “Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework” which represents the newest phase of agreements.

The main goals include restoring 30% of degraded ecosystems worldwide and conserving and managing 30% of land, inland water, and marine and coastal areas by 2030.

It’s worth noting that one of the Aichi targets aimed for at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas to be conserved by 2020 (especially important areas for biodiversity and ecosystem services) but we fell short of achieving that goal.

We now have six years or so left for the world’s governments to implement the legislation and actions needed to make this happen. Yet we can’t even stop raw sewage from entering UK rivers, stop our farmers from using damaging pesticides banned in the EU, or even agree to stop damaging fishing practices with our nearest neighbours!

Tackling Biodiversity Loss: National Efforts

These global efforts are slowly filtering down to the national level.

The concept of biodiversity net gain (BNG) was introduced in the Environment Act 2021 and became law in England in February this year; it requires developers to deliver a BNG of 10% on projects. The legislation is certainly ambitious and said to be world-leading, but the benefits that will be realised are already under doubt for several reasons.

Regulators Lack Staff and Monitoring Systems

The regulators lack the staff to check that the pledged habitat benefits materialise, and studies have found that more than a quarter of BNG units are at risk of leading to no tangible increases in biodiversity because there is no monitoring system in place.

Too Few Ecologists

There are also concerns that there are too few ecologists to oversee habitats or score them correctly, and some ecologists may lack independence if the developer employs them. Still, it is very early days for BNG, so it will certainly be interesting to see how it develops over time.

Biodiversity Success Stories

Despite the doom and gloom, there are several national success stories.

Costa Rica Deforestation Reversal

In the 1970s and 1980s Costa Rica had one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, but it became the first tropical country to have stopped and subsequently reversed deforestation.

Through policies banning deforestation and introducing payment for ecosystem services (PES) financed predominantly by a tax on fossil fuels, which pays farmers to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity or capture carbon dioxide it has saved more than 1 million hectares of forest, which amounts to a fifth of the country’s total area, and planted over 7 million trees.

This is truly an example of knowing the value of the natural forests and the price needed to protect it. Deforestation rates have also fallen by 74% in the Congo Basin, following the introduction of effective management plans.

Yellowstone Park Wolves Stabilise Ecosystem

The Wolves of Yellowstone Park are one of my favourite success stories – this is an example of how nature can rebalance itself with a little help (or lack of human interference in the first place!).

In just 25 years after their reintroduction, the wolves have helped to stabilise the park’s ecosystems, improving the health of herbivore herds and allowing the plants and trees to regrow increasing the amount of biodiversity in the park. They even contributed to changing the flow of the rivers there!

Conservation Projects

Conservation projects are helping various species with some successes (although in one out of every five cases, however, the measures had caused the targeted species to decline).

For example, Bald Eagle numbers had declined rapidly in the US and by 1963 only 487 nesting pairs remained. However, by 2007 the Bald Eagle had been removed from the list of threatened species.

Another success has been see where Mountain Gorillas were expected to become extinct by the end of the 20th century. Conservation efforts have seen current numbers grow worldwide to over 1,000.

There are a number of other success stories from whales to butterflies but despite these, global biodiversity continues to plummet.

What Can You Do To Stem Biodiversity Loss?

Even in the face of overwhelming biodiversity loss, there are actionable steps that we can all implement to make a positive impact and tackle the issue.

Don’t Mow Your Grass

As I write this, we have just entered June and I can cut the grass again after ‘no-mow May’.

With over 20 million gardens in the UK, even the smallest grassy patches add up to a significant proportion of land, which, if appropriately managed, can deliver enormous gains for nature, communities, and the climate.

You can help our insects and birdlife that rely on them by simply watching your grass grow. How easy is that?!

Plant More Native Plants

You can plant more native plants and trees in your gardens or, if you don’t have a garden, in window boxes or pots.

I recently removed some decorative trees in part of my garden and replaced them with fruit trees (I now technically have an orchard!!).

My family laughs at the regular loss of my fruits and vegetables to the local wildlife, but that is all part of the point of having them. Although I may ruefully shake my head as my gooseberries disappear, they are at least helping to support the local ecosystem (even though I would like occasionally to get enough to make some jam with!).

Think Before You Pesticide

Think carefully about what chemicals you apply to your flowers and plants. Pesticides may reduce the number of non-wanted insects on your greens, but they also kill other more beneficial insects and reduce the food supply for predators. There are less harmful ways of dealing with aphids than pesticides.

Every little helps, and we all need to take some collective action if we want to recognise the value of the nature around us and preserve what is left of our biodiversity for future generations.

Your World Needs You

My Biodiversity Conclusion

The variety of life on Earth is the culmination of 3.7 billion years of gradual evolution and survival of the fittest (and luckiest in some cases!!). These processes are slow, though, and the rate of change that we are causing to our ecosystems means that the plants and animals living there have no time to adapt. That is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity on a planetary level.

As with many of the problems caused by human activity, we have very little time left to realise the impacts of positive actions and reverse our mistakes.

The Earth’s ecosystems provide us with a wide range of services; they regulate the climate, provide food and medicines, and offer a way to relieve stress. Until we learn to value them again and realise that the Earth’s ecosystems and resources are not just for us to exploit and put a price on, they will continue to decline until they ultimately disappear.

I think that ‘they knew the price of everything and the value of nothing’ could become a fitting epitaph for the ‘wise man’ species if we don’t take the urgent action that we know we need to whilst we still can.

 

Picture of James Wyse
James Wyse
James is a Fellow Member of IEMA (FIEMA) and Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv). His approach is to use his experience to make the complex topic of sustainability more understandable and accessible. James shares his experiences on the TSW blog.
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