How do we tackle the biodiversity crisis?

30 August 2023

How do we tackle the biodiversity crisis?

Reported by Lauren Milden, Policy Adviser, Centre for Science and Policy

CSaP partnered with the Natural History Museum (NHM) in July to hold a unique event bringing together Policy Fellows working in climate and sustainability to discuss the challenges of tackling the biodiversity crisis.

This event launched the pilot of the CSaP Policy Fellows Climate and Sustainability Cluster. The aims of this event and the cluster include providing further opportunities for Policy Fellows working within the climate and sustainability space to meaningfully connect and to provide further opportunities for shared learning.

Emma Woods (Continuing Policy Fellow at CSaP) is the inaugural Director of Policy at NHM. To celebrate this exciting new function, the event focused on the theme of biodiversity, a key area of expertise for the Museum’s 350+ scientists and a critical part of the climate change story.

The biodiversity crisis

The event explored how the biodiversity debate is changing, particularly in the wake of the UN Global Biodiversity Framework and in the run-up to the COP28 climate conference, and what is required from scientists and policy makers as we move from agreements to action. Sir Patrick Vallance (Non-executive Chairman of the Board of Trustees, NHM) provided opening remarks, which evoked the overarching challenge of how to generate the same prominence for biodiversity as net zero targets. He referenced the COP15 International Science Advisors’ Statement, which itself highlighted the importance of biodiversity – including to the economy, food and health – and the serious risks from biodiversity decline.

The challenges of measuring biodiversity

Despite the critical role of biodiversity and the serious ramifications of biodiversity loss, participants discussed how it hasn’t received the appropriate and necessary levels of attention or resource. It was suggested that this was partly because biodiversity is complicated to measure and future scenarios are difficult to model.

Dr Adriana De Palma (Senior Researcher, NHM), provided further opening remarks, highlighting the NHM’s Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), which seeks to address these shortcomings. The BII helps illuminate how biodiversity responds to human impact, particularly changes in land use, at different scales. BII has been used, for example, to show the potential impact of a shift in global dietary preferences on biodiversity, but it has also been used to better understand the potential impact of restoration in a particular area. The index reveals the extent to which natural biodiversity remains in a given piece of land. Most of the world is below what is considered adequate in terms of biodiversity, and the UK is in the bottom 10% of all countries. It was noted, however, that while the BII is incredibly useful, there cannot, and should not, be only one index for biodiversity.

How do we achieve the engagement and action necessary to tackle the biodiversity crisis?

Despite the fact that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, many people don’t actually see the current landscape as depleted or recognise the scale of the challenge. Participants discussed the disassociation between humans and other species and how we might create an effective public narrative around the need to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. Discussants explored potential tools such as biodiversity footprints for households, businesses and countries, which include the equivalent of scope one, two and three impacts, as used in carbon emissions.

In the case of the BII, the NHM worked with artist Thijs Biersteker to create a robotic plant which visibly changed based on decisions made at COP15 and their projected impacts as measured by BII, to help convey the potential impacts of negotiations.

It was noted that biodiversity can be an abstract concept and that people may perceive and respond to biodiversity in different ways: it might not just be the number or density of species that has an impact on human wellbeing, but potentially also the sensory diversity (of sounds and colours, for example) that lead to higher levels of perceived biodiversity. How might we use such insights to craft compelling narratives?

Participants discussed whether biodiversity needed the equivalent of net zero’s 1.5-degree target to help focus action. Would the COP15 30x30 target fill this role or might another key target emerge? Or, building on the Dasgupta Review, should we focus on the economic arguments?

Challenges in designing policies for biodiversity

Prof Lynn Dicks (Conservation Scientist, University of Cambridge) provided a case study for workshop participants which illustrated the challenges policy makers face in supporting conservation in agricultural landscapes. She highlighted how nature conservation in agricultural landscapes has focused on land sharing approaches such as hedgerows, field margins and organic farming. However, in the mid-2000s, some scientists began to argue that the focus should be on land sparing strategies, which entail reducing the footprint of agriculture and separately keeping spaces for wild nature. At present, there is no scientific consensus and evidence can be presented to support both approaches. In fact, much of the data to support land sparing is focused on birds in tropical countries as opposed to biodiversity in UK agricultural settings! Supporters of land sharing argue that the practice has not yet been properly implemented, while advocates for land sparing are worried that less intensive agriculture use will actually require we use a greater proportion of land for agriculture, and could encourage the offshoring of the harmful impacts of agriculture. Prof Dicks pointed out that this leaves policy makers in a tricky position – do they act on equivocal evidence and conflicting advice? Do they wait for more evidence, either from others or by commissioning their own? Do they back both or one of the approaches? Participants generally agreed that at present policy does support both positions, i.e. most countries do some land sharing and some land sparing.

Participants discussed whether it might be useful to consider such policy challenges by starting with the cultural and social angles (given the cultural, social and heritage capital of land), as well as the need to diversify and decolonise the conservation sector. Participants also discussed how we might prioritise certain policies. For example, some changes to land use might require generations to take root, while other policies may need to be dealt with in the short term.

The Dasgupta Review highlighted that there is a natural limit on economic growth, and that the key tradeoffs should be reviewed through public discourse. Some of the variables that impact biodiversity, such as our diets, are politically unpalatable. Participants debated whether topics such as diet could be reframed to focus on consumer choices, while others highlighted that consumer changes are insufficient to get us to where we need to be. It was suggested that feedback from younger generations, and particularly activists, is that they are frustrated by the feeling that the burden of fixing the climate and biodiversity crises has been placed on them and that we should be wary of policies focusing on choice which risk exacerbating this challenge.

Participants identified both progress (including the BII and 30x30 target) and the gap that remains between the action that we urgently need and the action that we see. As one participant pointed out, the complexity of biodiversity is both its inherent value and why it is difficult to measure and discuss.

Image © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Lauren Milden

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge