16 May 2009

quantifying biodiversity loss

Biodiversity is not getting the attention it deserves internationally. Climate change has had 1,382 mentions in British national newspapers. Yet, during the same period, biodiversity was mentioned just 115 times. The reason that biodiversity is taking the back-seat is that is it left primarily in the hands of conservationists who rally the 'cuteness' factor of conservation. This is the reason why the issue is being ignored while climate change has been taken progressively more seriously. This emotional guilt-trip doesn't quiet work with many people and most importantly with policy makers.

In order to start talking about biodiversity, the loss of it needs to be quantified in hard economic terms. But how do you quantify the loss of honey-bees? and polar bears? and so many many other species under threat. Current biodiversity laws almost make it sound that preserving biodiversity is obligatory. It has to become mandatory.

A loss of a species represents the loss of millions of years of evolution from the biological stand point. It also means that that loss is connected to many other aspects of the web of life in a myriad different ways that we are yet to comprehend. Every form of life on this planet stands not on its own but is supported by, and supports, other living things. Lose one species and you lose a vital part of some ecosystem.That means you lose not just a plant or an insect but a service: you lose the medicine that comes from that plant; you lose the pollination of crops which that insect provides. Climate change matters, not because the world mustn't get any hotter, but because the rate of change is too fast for species to keep pace. As species die, so biodiversity is depleted and with it the ecosystem services that such biodiversity provides. However, these arguments for biodiversity have proven to be much less compelling for business leaders than Nicholas Stern's report that climate change could cost us between 5% and 20% of global GDP by the end of the century.

The head of Deutsche Bank's Global Markets predicts that our current rate of biodiversity loss could see 6% of global GDP wiped out as early as 2050. Climate change does not just lead to biodiversity loss; causality works the other way around too. It is the loss of forest that is causing climate change. It would be comforting to think that we can control this process, which is linear and predictable. It is not. In nature, disruptions to the equilibrium led to turbo-charged changes. Yet nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection. Economists call these externalities: things which we can take for granted and need not be ascribed a value. The economists are wrong. Unless we begin to value this natural capital in exactly the same way we value human or social capital, we will not begin to tackle the problem.

Biodiversity should be, as climate change is, a heads of governments' issue. Just as climate change has moved out of its environment cul-de-sac into mainstream government thinking to influence decisions on everything from transport to development and energy policies, so biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide need to be considered in every government decision. The issue lacks a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide scientific assessments and advice to governments and the public.Most important of all, we need a global agreement with teeth to protect biodiversity that captures the imagination like Kyoto.

The alternative is not an option.

No comments: