“10 Must Knows from Biodiversity Science”, ranging from climate stress for forests to the corona virus that has jumped from animals to humans, are now published for the first time. More than 45 experts from the German Leibniz Research Network Biodiversity and colleagues have compiled this inventory on the preservation of nature as the basis of human life.
In the run-up to the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, and parallel to the preparatory meetings currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland, this report is intended to invite dialogue. At the same time, the researchers voice clear policy demands.
“If we continue business as usual, we will undermine the foundations of our life on this planet,” explains Kirsten Thonicke from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, speaker of the Leibniz Research Network Biodiversity.
“It is important not to look at individual phenomena such as a single species threatened with extinction but to look at the connections. In the end, it is about the air we breathe and the water we drink. We want to encourage people to tackle the challenges. The longer we delay, the more difficult and the more expensive it becomes – there are clear parallels here with the climate issue,” Thonicke added.
Current stocktaking on biodiversity
- “Achieving climate and biodiversity protection together”: Ecosystems on land and the oceans have absorbed about 55% of human-made CO2 emissions in the past ten years. Destroying ecosystems such as peatlands or forests releases large quantities of greenhouse gases. Intact ecosystems therefore benefit the climate. In turn, a stable climate also benefits biodiversity. The extinction risk of tropical species could be halved if global warming was kept below 2°C, and one third of the land area was protected. Both, climate and biodiversity protection, have been agreed upon internationally or is currently being negotiated; the only thing lacking is their implementation.
- “Strengthening planetary health”: 75% of new infectious diseases – currently including COVID19 – are zoonoses, i. e. diseases transmitted from animals to humans. This can happen when humans increasingly encroach on natural areas, or in factory farming, which often already contributes to the destruction of nature by cultivating feed on what used to be untouched lands. Protecting ecosystems and reducing factory farming can therefore directly and indirectly benefit the health of people and nature.
- ”Considering hidden biodiversity”: Everyone wants to protect elephants or tigers, but life below the surface dies invisibly. In rivers and lakes, the number of larger vertebrates has decreased by 84%. More research on the death of microorganisms in the soil is urgently needed. The microorganisms below the ground are important for everything that grows on earth.
- “Promoting biocultural habitats”: About 5,000 indigenous peoples remaining on earth depend on an intact nature as hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. Biodiversity, cultural, and linguistic diversity are closely related; for example, 70% of all languages are spoken on only 24% of the earth’s surface, where we also find the greatest diversity of species. If we lose the languages, we not only lose the knowledge about biodiversity, but also traditional ecological knowledge that is instrumental in preserving and sustaining their natural habitat.
- “Using forests sustainably”: After three drought years (2018-2020), 79% of all trees in German forests have less dense foliage. Many forests are becoming more susceptible to insect damage or fire due to climate stress. At the same time, forests are considered suppliers of climate-friendly raw materials because trees take CO2 out of the air and store it in the wood. The concept of sustainability, which originated in forestry, must be redefined here. Forests need management, for example through certification, the planting of new resilient species, or by supporting natural forest development.
- “Transforming agriculture”: The production of food for humanity – an enormous achievement – often contributes to the death of species through monocultures and too many pesticides and fertilisers. Only a few types of grain grow on 40% of the world’s harvested land, namely maize, wheat and rice. At the same time, almost 40% of plant diversity is threatened with extinction. In order for farmers to preserve biodiversity, they need financial incentive systems and advice, for example through German or EU agricultural policy.
- “Protecting land and resources”: 77% of the world’s land areas, with the exception of the ice-covered Antarctic, are already heavily modified by human use. Natural areas must therefore urgently be protected, and additional areas renatured if they are to continue to provide their ecosystem services and contribute to climate protection. Expressing these services in euros and cents in order to manage them is not easy. It is currently unclear how much resource consumption humanity can still afford. But: As little as possible if it wants to minimise risks.
- “Expanding transnational infrastructures and education for sustainability”: Damage to nature often occurs along supply chains and in global production networks. Strategies such as the EU’s to protect biodiversity must therefore be transnational. But it also depends on citizens. More than 70% of all biodiversity data worldwide is collected by people active outside science. Citizen science is growing.
- “Ensuring access and open use of research data”: Sharing data is the basis for effective biodiversity management. For example, a relevant database of the INSDC (International Association of Gene Sequence Databases) already offers more than a quintillion gene sequences for free use worldwide – they help to identify new species through gene comparison or to detect changes in known organisms, for example in pathogens. Restricting access to data hinders research progress, more digitisation promotes it.
- “Setting biodiversity-friendly incentives”: Around 140 billion US dollars are spent annually on biodiversity conservation worldwide, from public and private funds – but 500 billion in public subsidies plus an estimated 2,600 billion in private investments in sectors that harm biodiversity. This imbalance could change if the financial sector included biodiversity impacts in investment risk assessments, as it is already increasingly doing with climate impacts. This would be an important lever for the conservation of our natural livelihoods.
Aletta Bonn, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), said: “We need to address the biodiversity crisis together with the climate and health crisis. Biodiversity promotes our health – for example through food, medicines or through natural climate regulation. We know that birdsong and trees on our doorstep increase our life satisfaction and mental health, and protecting ecosystems means active pandemic prevention. There are many synergies here – healthy nature is good for us!”
Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research: “Wildlife and environmental aspects need to be included in health security priorities and plans, because the importance of wildlife health for human health and functioning ecosystems has been largely overlooked in global health and biodiversity strategies. Planetary health depends on the web of life being diverse – not only when it concerns keeping pathogens at bay, but also for the sake of nutrition and climate.”
Daniel Müller, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies: “Misaligned economic incentives and market failures contributed to the biodiversity crisis. Policy measures that redirect market and investment behaviour towards conservation and restoration of biodiversity are therefore critical to solve the biodiversity crisis.”
Sibylle Schroer, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries: “Investments in species conservation are often driven by empathy. We naturally feel less connected to species that we do not see, that might transmit diseases, or that live in habitats that are unfamiliar to us. Humans focus primarily on what can be perceived. Thus, changes of living community compositions in soil, sediment, water or at night are often underestimated, like for example artificial light at night as a driver of global change. But looking at such overseen habitats is fundamental to protecting the species we care about.”
Tonjes Veenstra, Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics: “The natural habitat of indigenous peoples and local communities is becoming increasingly smaller due to deforestation and exploitation. But it is not only the loss of species in these biodiversity hotspots that is worrying, but also the languages spoken in these communities, and thus their intricate knowledge of flora and fauna, are highly endangered. The acquisition of formal legal titles to their lands is key to the survival of these speech communities, so that they retain control over their habitat and protect it. This makes our planet in the end a more diverse and healthier place for us all.”
Barbara Warner, Academy for Territorial Development in the Leibniz Association: “Protection and development of landscapes, ecosystem services and nature are comprehensive social, political and economic goals and challenges at the same time – and central concerns of sustainable spatial development.”
Wolfgang Wende, Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development: “It is no longer sufficient by far to merely protect landscapes, ecosystems and biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity has already progressed so far that, in addition to much stricter protection, ecosystems and habitats must also be extensively restored. A net gain in biodiversity should be the goal of our society.”