Position: Adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School and head of think-tank, the Copenhagen Consensus
Contribution: Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. Among
Disappearing biodiversity has increasingly received mainstream media attention in the past few years. Often, biodiversity campaigners have attempted to capture our attention with pictures of cuddly endangered animals, or alarming figures about the rate of disappearing species.
They use cuddly animals because people are much more inclined to care more about so-called “charismatic animals” (larger animals which we recognise) than nameless, microscopic organisms. But the latter can also be important to protect.
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, “Every hour three species disappear. Every day up to 150 species are lost.” Putting aside the mathematical issues with this, this is speciously precise because we don’t even know how many species there are.
Current estimates of the number of species can vary wildly from two million species to 100 million. There is a high level of uncertainty faced by researchers in this field, meaning that no-one can actually be sure of the exact scale of species loss.
According to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) data, for example, only one animal has been definitely identified as having gone extinct since 2000. It was a mollusc.
What scientists can do instead is measure ‘ecosystem services’. These are the natural processes by which the environment produces resources used by humans, such as clean water, timber, habitat for fisheries, and pollination of native and agricultural plants. Also included are genetic materials that can help make new life-saving drugs, the recreational and cultural uses of natural environments, the control of agricultural pests, and the value of biomass storing CO2 (as a counter to global warming).
The links between biodiversity and ecosystem services is still undergoing research. But according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, these services have faced major (and measurable) losses. During the last century, the planet has lost 50 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its forests and 35 percent of its mangroves. Around 60 percent of global ecosystem services have been degraded in just 50 years.
In a research paper on biodiversity for Copenhagen Consensus 2012, Salman Hussain, ecological economics researcher of the Scottish Agricultural College, and Professor Anil Markandya of the University of Bath and the Basque Centre for Climate Change, find that there will be a significant loss of biodiversity over the next 40 years. They estimate that globally this loss could be around 12 percent, with South Asia facing a loss of around 30 percent and Sub-Saharan Africa of 18 percent. They look at three interventions and compare these to doing nothing.
The first solution focusses on increasing agricultural productivity through research and development. This may seem like a roundabout way to address biodiversity, but as the global population has increased to 7 billion, we have cut down more and more forest to grow our food. Between now and 2050 we will likely expand agricultural area another 10 percent, which will come from natural areas like forests and grasslands. Thus, if we could increase agricultural productivity we would need to take less and be able to leave more to nature. Furthermore, investment in agricultural R&D would reduce hunger and malnutrition because it would lower food prices.
The authors estimate that with a $14.5 billion annual infusion into research we can achieve 20 percent higher annual growth rates for crops and 40 percent higher growth rates for livestock, which over the next 40 years will significantly reduce the pressures on nature.
(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)