Nature's web of life
At its simplest, biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth - the genes, species, and ecosystems that constitute the biosphere and the relationship between living organisms. Specifically, we rely on biodiversity to power the nature-based solutions that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in massive quantities. Declining biodiversity puts our very ability to fight climate change at risk. Nature's amenities - such as raw materials and ecosystem services we depend on to survive and thrive - are worth an estimated $125T annually, more than 70x the market cap of Amazon, Inc.
Yet as the modern world continues to progress, grow, and urbanize, our climate has simultaneously changed. And nature - our best defense against increases in GHG emissions - is declining faster than at any time in our Planet’s history. In the last half-century, wildlife populations have fallen by over two-thirds. As it stands, more than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of vanishing within the next two decades - equivalent to the number lost over the whole of the last hundred years.
This problem is compounded by the fact that ‘extinction breeds extinction,’ whereby interactions of species on the brink of eradication tend to move other species towards extinction, creating a domino effect. Unless we significantly reduce the global rate of change in nature, we could face the sixth mass extinction, whereby one million known plants, animals, and insects are wiped from the earth by 2050. Research reveals that the main drivers of biodiversity loss include:
Land-use changes: The problem is not human use per se, but the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies. Roughly 75 percent of terrestrial ecosystems and 66 percent of marine ecosystems have been deemed severely altered. Today, cropping or animal husbandry requires one-third of Earth’s land surface; three agricultural sectors - beef, oilseeds, and forestry products - account for three-quarters of global deforestation and present threats to the waterways and species that reside there.
Organism exploitation: As it stands, around 90 percent of the world’s wild fish stocks are exploited or overfished. At the same time, due to the rising demand for meat and the industrialization of animal agriculture, 65 percent of antibiotics in the US are sold to centralized animal feeding operations (CAFOs). And in California, more than one-third of the almond-pollinating bees are dying by the season’s end due to heightened pressure and exposure to toxic pesticides.
Climate change: Relative to pre-industrial levels, humans are estimated to have caused observed warming of approximately 1.0°C by 2017. In doing so, the global average sea levels are rising - increasing the risk of flooding and tropical storms in coastal regions. And sustained droughts paired with warming air temperatures are drying forests and vegetation - creating the perfect conditions for more frequent wildfires that threaten wildlife habitats and ecosystem function.
Pollution: Air, water, and soil pollution are also increasing with dire impacts on nature. Since 1990, marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold. And since the 1960s, in the US alone, the use of nitrogen applied to farmland in the form of synthetic fertilizers has risen more than 300 percent. A bulk of this fertilizer, in addition to large amounts of soil, runoff into coastal ecosystems - stimulating toxic algae blooms and producing more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones,’ spanning an area larger than the United Kingdom.
Now more than ever, we must go beyond a narrow focus on carbon to find tools that protect and restore biodiversity, thereby reducing the release of atmospheric emissions and scaling nature-based solutions. In doing so, we can mitigate climate change while tapping into the co-benefits that come with increasing our stock of plant, animal, microbial, and fungal species - including air & water purification, pest & disease control, and natural waste treatment.
Humanity’s biodiversity crisis is a reminder of our intrinsic connection to the natural world. Developing and implementing solutions that allow us to live our daily lives in a manner that sustains natural resources for the next generation is a daunting challenge that will require nonpartisan collaboration between policymakers and builders. Stay tuned for next week’s article detailing ReGen Venture’s playbook for protecting and restoring what’s left of our planet.