Let’s Talk Biodiversity: Reversing Biodiversity Loss

Reversing biodiversity loss, through restoring nature, natural ecosystems, waterways and soil health is the real aim of nature-based solutions. Sometimes the solution can be quite simple, but sometimes it is complicated and requires specific, accurate attention to detail. Let’s start with a story, a story that is both uplifting and an example of a ripple effect. 

Yellow Stone National Park was in crisis. Wolves were hunted as they preyed on agricultural livestock, and at a certain point, they were eradicated from the park. This meant that deer, the preferred species at the time flourished. However, fast forward a few years and Yellowstone was experiencing a biodiversity crisis. Deer numbers were incredibly high and they were destroying the habitat and displacing other species due to their eating habits. The deer ate small plants, trees were growing less and gradually the area was becoming more degraded and less healthy. In 1995, scientists decided to reintroduce wolves to see how they would impact the ecosystem. The wolves were tracked and studied so the effect of the reintroduced wolves could be quantified. The results have been amazing. Not only have the wolves reduced the number of deer. With fewer deer, there are more trees. Less trampling from deer means minimized erosion, and the ground in Yellowstone has stabilized enabling vegetation to grow. However, the wolf has not only impacted the deer numbers with their hunting behavior. Beavers, which were incredibly rare, now have nine colonies in Yellowstone. The positive effects can be seen for species large and small, from the beetle to the lynx. Today there are more than 500 wolves in Yellowstone and the ecosystem has been revitalized. 

What this story really highlights is ecosystem interconnectedness and the delicate balance of biodiversity. It shows how small tweaks or imbalances within the chain can make an enormous impact. Obviously, every ecosystem problem doesn’t have a wolf solution, but sometimes restoration can mean ensuring that the biodiversity balance is maintained. Protection is step one and restoration is step two, if necessary. Preventing deforestation and land degradation is of course better than reforestation, but reforestation is vital when the trees have already been cut down and will not come back without human intervention. The most important aspect of restoring is that it must be done correctly. With Yellowstone, scientists were very careful to track the wolves and constantly monitor the impact they were having. Additionally, the wolf was native and had been removed by human hunting, introducing a tiger to Yellowstone probably would have had adverse effects. 

Restoring habitats in the right way means research, data, science and most importantly, local knowledge. Nature restoration is one of the best ways to boost biodiversity and rebuild ecosystems, but only if it is done properly. Restoration and reforestation should have the purpose of nature restoration at the forefront, and carbon withdrawal as the serendipitous side effect, as opposed to being driven by carbon removals. Only thinking about carbon removals can cause devastation to habitats with monocultures that are not native and less resilient due to lack of diversity. A forest planted the wrong way is nothing compared to a natural one. That is, a forest planted, be it with good intentions or tunnel vision, not adhering to local species or involving local knowledge. Monocultures of pine are no more biodiverse than monocultures of soy. Diverse being the optimum word. With healthy biodiversity and ecosystems as the goal, monocultures are redundant. There are two billion hectares of degraded land worldwide, which is a lot of land to restore. This makes restoration an essential part of boosting biodiversity, but it is important that these efforts are done hand in hand with habitat protection, as it is estimated that 40% of the world’s terrestrial areas are in need of conservation management.

Whilst restoring land and rebalancing biodiversity with well-researched reintroduction are pivotal points of action in combating biodiversity loss, reforming current systems is vital to achieving biodiversity goals. How businesses, governments and individuals interact with the environment needs to change. Whether businesses resource materials or their product chains, how governments source energy and work to enhance the environment rather than take from it and how individuals live their day-to-day lives consciously. 

Individual action does matter. We’ve all heard the saying “if you think you’re too small to make an impact, try sharing a bed with a mosquito.” Granted, it will only work in collaboration with major changes from large actors, but everything at this point helps. In most of Europe, it used to be normal to smoke inside. That didn’t seem likely to change, despite the fact, there were clear indicators that smoking impacts health and has a strong correlation with lung cancer. However, government bans in 2007 created huge change and eventually, individual behavior reflected that change. Did it result in no smoking? No. Did it result in a smoking decline? Yes.

To lead on from this, a slightly less positive example of individual action is that cigarette butts continue to rank as the most found waste product on beaches where smoking is allowed. The UN describes it as “the most discarded waste item worldwide.” There are an estimated 4.5 tonnes of cigarette butts littered each year. To put that into context, that is four and a half VW beetles, which in cigarette butts is a lot. Whether flicked onto beaches, tossed in parks, or dropped onto streets, many of the tiny, lightweight butts end up in bodies of water, swept there by rainfall and stormwater systems. One cigarette butt can pollute or intoxicate 1000 liters of water, meaning the damage caused by one individual can be quite significant. Also, it shows that individual habits added together can cause a lot of damage. If this behavior pattern were changed, it would already make a big impact. 

Some governments have already made significant changes to current systems by giving nature legal rights. This concept was first established by Ecuador in 2008 as part of the constitution. The country gave rights to its rivers, mountains, forests and air legal rights to “exist, flourish and evolve.” Other nations such as NZ, part of the US, Bolivia, India, Bangladesh and Uganda have followed suit, giving nature a legal standing in their political systems. This bodes the question, should this be implemented in Brazil and other South American countries that house the world’s biggest rainforest? What about oceans? It isn’t clear if this is the correct course of action, but giving nature actual rights and evolving from seeing nature as a resource to a living entity that requires protection is pivotal. It is very complicated in practice, but could also be very important for ensuring there isn’t more forest lost. 

Individual action alongside large-scale restoration both play pivotal roles in boosting biodiversity. However, without governments, international organizations and businesses, true collaborative action won’t be realized as it needs to be to really make an impact. In the final section of this five-part series, we will explore the results of COP27 and COP15, and analyze what that means for the future of boosting biodiversity.