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George Eaton, Rectory farm water Stratford nr Buckingham. - Image ID: BMCAKM Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion Our fields may be green, but we are failing to protect biodiversity

Professor Jane Stout looks at the COP15 UN biodiversity conference underway in Canada and reminds us why it is so important.

LAST UPDATE | 13 Dec 2022

ON A BEAUTIFUL, bright and frosty winter day, it’s hard to comprehend that all’s not right in the natural world.

The sun is shining, leaves are crunching underfoot, and birds are visiting the feeders we have hung in the garden. The fields are green and the tides flow in and out around our coasts.

Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, Ireland is in the middle of a crisis. A crisis of nature.

This crisis of nature includes the now well-known phenomenon of climate change and the gradual warming of the planet, whose effects we have experienced in the storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves of recent months. But less obvious is the biodiversity crisis – the slow and silent loss of the variety of life that sustains and underpins our livelihoods and well-being.

Yes, our fields are green, but they mostly comprise a single species of grass, which is nutrient-hungry and so fed with artificial fertilisers. Yes, the tide continues to go in and out, but the protective habitats around our coastlines have been removed, leaving us at risk from storm events.

We’re not doing well

In fact, the rather sobering reality is that Ireland’s biodiversity is not in a good state. The majority of our protected habitats are not in good condition, and those that aren’t protected are being slowly chipped away, degraded and homogenised.

There are 30 thousand species that live in Ireland, but we only have enough knowledge of about ten per cent of them to assess what state they are in – and of that ten per cent, one in five is at risk of extinction.

And these patterns are reflected in the global statistics – about 75% of the earth’s surface is now severely altered by human activity and two-thirds of oceans are experiencing increasing impacts. And nearly all our wetlands globally are gone. An estimated one million species are at risk of extinction globally, and animal populations are less than one-third the size they were in the early 1970s.

‘So what?’ I hear many people say, ‘There are more urgent issues for humanity to tackle’. But the crisis of nature is a crisis for humanity. Nature is our life-support system – it provides food, water, shelter, and oxygen that are crucial for our survival.

Not only that, but it enhances our well-being by providing medicinal compounds, it benefits our mental health, spirituality and culture, provides opportunities for recreation and inspiration and has spiritual and cultural significance. It also underpins our economies and lifestyles – in fact, the World Economic Forum has listed biodiversity loss as one of the top three risks to global economies.

As biodiversity is lost, products become scarcer or more expensive, threatening livelihoods and quality of life; our local areas become less resilient to the effects of climate change, threatening homes and businesses; and there is a gradual erosion of all the free ‘services’ we get from nature, from breaking down waste and recycling nutrients to the pollination of crops and wild plants, to the landscapes we all enjoyed escaping to during covid lockdowns. Not to mention that beautiful and bizarre creatures that have evolved over millions of years are lost to us and future generations.

So, this is serious: but what are we doing about it?

Remember the global COP meeting in Egypt last month to address climate change? Well, a similar COP is currently underway in Canada to address biodiversity loss. This is the 15th meeting since most of the countries in the world signed up for a Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992.

The main objective of the current Biodiversity COP is to achieve global political commitment to tackling the biodiversity crisis and to agree a Global Biodiversity Framework to protect and restore biodiversity, whilst respecting indigenous rights. There is a sense of urgency, as well as the need for ambition and transformative change. But will more targets make a difference?

In Europe, we already have a very ambitious Biodiversity Strategy as part of the Green Deal, which aims to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. We have a Nature Restoration Law coming down the tracks, as well as increased responsibilities for organisations to report on their impacts on biodiversity. We need to build on this and strengthen environmental law and its enforcement to protect biodiversity.

But tackling this issue and achieving ambitious targets is going to take effort from everyone. The solution isn’t just putting a fence around nature and keeping people out. We are part of nature, and we need it in our everyday lives. It needs to be everywhere, and it needs everyone involved in its protection. From big corporates that have money, power and influence. From governments who should prioritise and coordinate action across departments and individuals who want to maintain their standard of living for themselves and leave a liveable planet for their children.

Often we can feel the problem is too big for individuals to make a difference. But we can – we can put pressure on businesses and the government, both directly and indirectly through the choices we make and actions we take.

Your business can make a difference – you can assess your impacts and dependencies on biodiversity, and embrace nature-first decision-making (look to the Business for Biodiversity Ireland Platform for advice). We can also play our part locally – with community groups, schools and in the workplace.

If you have no idea what to do, look to initiatives like the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, which provides practical tips and guidelines across all sectors. Make space for nature in your own garden. Appreciate nature and treat it like a family member – look after it and nurture it – after all, nature’s doing that for you.

Jane Stout is Professor at Trinity College Dublin and Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action. Prior to this, she was co-Director of the Nature+, the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity & Sustainable Nature Based Solutions, and led a large team in the Plant-Animal Interactions Research Group.


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