“We live in a time of climate and ecological crises” is something that many in the environmental movement are used to saying or hearing at this point, and the language is being echoed by more and more people. The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill is gaining traction in the UK, and “net zero” commitment are ballooning. However, there remains an enormous gap between attention being paid to the climate crisis and the ecological crisis. Many people are aware of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who wrote documents such as the 1.5 °C report. But much fewere people have heard of IPBES: the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
This dearth of knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystems, even among environmentalists, is worrying. For over a decade, scientists have been warning that biodiversity loss is occuring at a far greater rate than any other planetary boundary overstep. We’re now at a point where 96% of mammal biomass is made up by humans, or animals we’re going to eat. We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction. The last one wiped out the dinosaurs.
This is dangerous to everyone: we need biodiversity to survive. The Irish potato famine demonstrated how monoculture can quickly lead to mass starvation, yet monocultures are becoming the standard form of crop cultivation, from soya in Brazil to palm oil in Indonesia to corn in the US. These often replace ecosystems rich in biodiversity that have often supported local and indigenous people for hundreds of years — it is only the recent globalisation of the food system which has changed.
Large companies have led the charge in this development, bent on making a buck, and not taking into account longterm ecosystem changes. Soil degradation, fresh groundwater shortages, disease and insect die-off are now catching up with the food system, with monocrops such as the banana now facing a precarious future. Traditional agriculture techniques have been left by the wayside, but now we must consider whether integrated agricultural practices such as permaculture need to become a larger part of our food system.
Not only is biodiversity loss dangerous in itself, but it may also contribute to other environmental problems, such as climate change. The replacement of rich ecosystems with monocultures, for forestry, agriculture, or fuel, lessens the ecosystem’s potential to store carbon dioxide. In a diverse system, different plants have different niches, storing carbon in different ways, as well as much more being trapped in the soil. When this is replaced with monocrops, not only is the CO2 stored by these ecosystems released, but the replacement crops don’t have the capacity to store the same amount of carbon. In the process of replacing these plants, the topsoil is often heavily disrupted, releasing even more of the greenhouse gas.
Furthermore, just like with climate change, biodiversity also has its tipping points. One example in extinction rates within food chains. As extinction rates increase, then food chains are disruped. As one species dies out, then those relying on it in turn face food difficulties. At the same time, those which were used as food for the extinct species increase their population rapidly, potentially causing further harm to the already damaged ecosystem.
We are in an ecological crisis, with the planet facing the loss of much of its biodiversity. This is catastrophic for the rich ecosystems around the world, and all of us who depend on them. As we work towards climate solutions, we must also look at solutions to the crisis of biodiversity on the horizon, or we will face challenges unknown to the planet in the last 65 million years.