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Animals and plants are disappearing faster than at any other time in human history, and it's happening in Ireland too

A recent UN report has pointed to the huge threats to biodiversity across the globe.

Image: Shutterstock/TB studio

A LANDMARK REPORT that assessed the state of the world’s biodiversity was published earlier this week, which gave a grim account of the significant dangers facing plants and animals across the globe.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report shows that species loss on the planet is accelerating at a rate of tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.

The UN report – the biggest ever of its kind – concluded that more than half a million species on land have insufficient habitat for long-term survival and are likely to go extinct – many within decades – unless their habitats are restored. 

Close to a third of corals around and over a third of marine mammals are also threatened. 

Changes in nature caused by decades of poisoning the Earth’s forests, oceans, soil and air threaten society at least as much as climate change, was the message from the report’s authors. 

“We’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations that led to the 39-page summary. 

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature.”

Biodiversity and climate change 

Biodiversity the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat. More biodiversity is associated with a healthier system. 

A Decline in biodiversity on the planet is bad not only due to the loss of certain animal and plant species, but also because of the danger it poses to human survival. 

Plants and animals are the building blocks on which human life depends. Threats like the ones now facing a huge variety of different species are also a long-term threat to human survival. 

One significant factor in the loss of biodiversity is human-made climate change – the warming of the Earth by human activities. Loss of biodiversity also speeds up climate change, as Earth loses its life support systems. 

Ireland and biodiversity loss 

Ireland is not immune from the losses in plant and animal life that are occurring across the planet. 

Environmental scientists, researchers and activists have all pointed towards a decline in certain plant and animal species across the country, with many others threatened. 

Of the 3,000 or so plant and animal species in Ireland that are subject to a conservation assessment (meaning, an assessment on how likely it is that they will go extinct), about a quarter are facing extinction. 

“And the big issue is we don’t know which plant or animal could be the source of our next medicine. It could be something that provides the air that we breathe or food for the next generation,” Noeleen Smyth, a conservation botanist with the National Botanic Gardens, told TheJournal.ie.

Smyth said that of about 1,200 plants in Ireland, 100 are threatened with extinction and 20 are critically endangered. 

Smyth said that it was of huge importance that the country worked toward conserving the species that remain. 

“I like to think of species in that same way: each species of plant and animal are holding together this big system and we don’t know which one is going to be the weak link, where the system might break,” she said.  

Several species of the country’s wildlife are also under strain. 

Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland provided TheJournal.ie with figures facing the nations habitats, plants and wildlife. These include: 

  • Two-thirds of Ireland’s 202 regularly occurring birds are on the Red and Amber Lists of Birds of Conservation Concern
  • The Curlew has declined by 96% since the 70s
  • 91% of Ireland’s internationally-important habitats (bogs, grasslands) have ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ status
  • Over a third of Ireland’s 99 bee species are threatened with extinction
  • Butterfly populations have declined by 6% since 2008
  • Data from 17 County Hedgerow Surveys show that just one-third of hedgerows are in good condition for birds and other wildlife

Shifting attitudes

Duggan is also a spokesperson for Environmental Pillar, a collection of different environmental groups in Ireland. 

She spoke to TheJournal.ie last week ahead of a hustings event in Dublin which brought together candidates in the upcoming European elections to be questioned by members of the public on climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Duggan said that she felt a tipping point had been reached in the public’s attitude around these subjects, with people demanding more action from their elected representatives.

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“I think climate change and biodiversity are really top of the agenda at this point in time,” she said. 

I think a tipping point has been reached. There’s been an awful lot of awareness recently [about these issues].

Ireland has one of the worst records for responding to climate change in the EU and among developed nations.

The country was ranked the worst in Europe in terms of climate action in response to global warming in the Climate Change Performance Index 2019

Ireland is certain to miss its 2020 targets for reducing harmful emissions as set under 2016′s Paris Agreement, and as things stand is on course to miss its 2030 targets also.  

The Dáil on Thursday declared a climate emergency, a move that has been heralded as positive step, but one which has no actual binding targets attached. 

It also fully endorsed the recent report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, which contained numerous recommendations aimed at curbing Ireland’s emissions. 

An All of Government Climate Plan is due to be published later this year, which will likely put to effect a number of these recommendations. 

In terms of biodiversity, it is likely that a Citizens’ Assembly will be convened to look specifically at how the State can improve its response to biodiversity loss. 

Following the publication of the UN report, Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan announced that she had received Cabinet approval to bring forward an amendment to the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2018.

The amendment – if passed – will oblige public bodies to report to the minister on the measures they are carrying out to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the National Biodiversity Action Plan.

Madigan said the department was taking significant action to protect and enhance Ireland’s biodiversity. However, the above examples in biodiversity loss point to a worsening crisis facing Ireland’s plant and wildlife species. 

While moves over the past week point to a positive shift in Ireland’s attitudes to biodiversity loss and climate change, in the words of Leo Varadkar, Ireland is still a “laggard” when it comes to addressing the issues.

It remains to be seen whether concrete actions will follow-up the commitments to restore Ireland’s biodiversity and address its contribution to climate change. 

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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