The rapid decline in biodiversity, faster than any time in history, with 1 million species facing extinction, many within decades, has triggered worldwide concern and scientists are engrossed over what transformative action is needed to save our natural systems.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was set up to protect life on earth and be the basis for all environmental debate. The UN declared the decade as ‘International Decade of Biodiversity.’ However, protecting wealth and ensuring judicious measures haven’t been taken by most nations as the decade draws to an end this year. Will a new conference scheduled in October evolve some strategy with definite targets, in the backdrop that the World Environment Day has chosen ‘Biodiversity’ as the theme, indicating the thrust on the subject in 2020.
Humanity’s culpability in what many scientists believe to be a planetary emergency has been reaffirmed by a detailed and depressing Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report by international experts, based on thousands of scientific studies whose findings are indeed quite grim.
A major report published by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPEBS) in 2019 found that an average of 25 per cent of all animal and plant species assessed face extinction, many within decades. This translates into around 1 million species that face extinction unless urgent and drastic action is taken to protect them. Moreover, the recently released State of India’s Birds Report 2020’ showed that while our national bird peacock is doing well, over a hundred species of birds face extinction.
It may also be mentioned that the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services last year, compiled by 145 experts/authors from 50 countries with inputs from 310 contributing authors over the past three years, is another comprehensive report ever completed and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating evidence. The Report assessed changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature and offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.
Biodiversity ensures natural sustainability for all life on the planet. For example, more abundant crops and fresher air. Over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity, while over 1.6 billion people rely on forests for livelihood. The loss of biodiversity affects lives of over 1 billion people living in drylands. Thus, biological diversity continues to be a subject of intense research to investigate and further broaden our knowledge as only 1.3 million of an estimated 10 million species of plants and animals have been identified till date.
Research is ongoing over economic linkages of biological wealth, which unfortunately is not well circulated in discussions on environment and development. Though there is a vague understanding of the multiplicity of species on planet earth, there is no clarity on how this diversity gives stability to life and also provides ecosystem services to villagers and city dwellers. A book, ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolhert, published a few years back, warned of a devastating sequel with plant and animal species on land and sea disappearing at a rapid pace and their habitats destroyed by human activities.
In India, it is ironic that it was the first country to enact a Biodiversity Act in 2002 and the National Biodiversity Authority was established a year later. The Act was built on three goals of CBD – conservation of biodiversity, encouraging its sustainable use and ensuring the benefits arising from its use are equitably shared with those who helped in conserving the country’s biological wealth. It put in place a 3-tier structure to manage biological diversity and there are State biodiversity boards with some even having biodiversity committees in many local bodies.
International attempts have been made at measuring economic benefits from biodiversity. A report ‘The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity’ (TEEB) estimated benefits of US $3.7 trillion from avoiding greenhouse gas emissions through forest conservation, which happens to be just one ecosystem service function from biodiversity.
A new instrument called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Degradation of Forests’ (REED) was introduced at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 to channel funds for forests’ preservation. But not much headway was made since and clearing of forests and destruction of wetlands globally continues.
Natural diversity in form of food crops and land structure has been the basis of agricultural research and food security of the earth’s growing population. Experts agree that the present 7-8 billion population and its rapid pace of growth would need at least four planets to provide them a livable lifestyle. The obvious answer to solving the current problems lies in agri-biotechnologies by mixing and matching genetic traits from within and outside the species; this could be the driver for global, including India’s, agricultural growth and productivity increase.
Besides, pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries draw their unique molecules from naturally occurring biological diversity. This diversity is the basis for the pharma sector. Around 25-35% if not more of the $649 billion pharmaceutical market is derived from genetic resources. Bio-prospecting and process of looking for plant and animal genes need to be geared up in India as the market is expected to grow to $300 million from around $60-$70 million presently.
India has unique distinction in this sector, as companies are making significant investments in bio-manufacturing to enter global markets and global pharma entities are looking to us as their manufacturing base. Another report published a few years’ back states China holds 8.5% of global concentration of capacity and employment, India 8% and Japan and some other Asian countries 9.2%. These areas have been growing rapidly in bio-manufacturing capacity than the global average.
In view of huge economic benefits of biological diversity in our daily life, the Government needs to be serious, given we have a huge population and rising pollution. While Delhi gets its drinking water from the Himalayas, Mumbai and Bengaluru get it from the Western Ghats and Chennai is also dependent on the Ghats to trap and release water into the Krishna River.
Meanwhile, a paper ‘A Global Deal for Nature’ (published in Science Advances in April 2019) recommended a two-fold increase in the protected land area and a four-fold increase in marine reserves over the next decade. If policies are rigorously pursued, it may effectively quarantine about 30% of the world’s land and oceans.
A new global biodiversity strategy for the next decade will be adopted at the UN Biodiversity Conference, to be held China in October. The adoption of a Global Biodiversity Framework, and many others issues, which aim at ensuring balance of life in this ecosystem – bacteria to plants, animals, birds etc. – are to be debated. A longer 2050 goal called ‘Living in harmony with nature’ is to be decided.
In conclusion, biodiversity being subjective and lack of sincerity by implementing agencies, the targets have not delivered results. However, if there is determination to implement the strategy adopted at this conference, targets could be achieved and it may be possible to bring a certain balance between the weight of humans, domesticated animals and wild species. The challenge is indeed quite grave and national governments, including India, would need to outline specific steps they would take to maintain global balance of temperature, water and air.