Today the UN IPBES group officially released information (a report summary and media release) on the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – the first full scale global biodiversity report in over a decade. More importantly, perhaps – it is the first full scale global biodiversity report with highly integrated natural and social sciences. It is also rather unique in its nature as a UN Intergovernmental Panel, meaning that the 132 signatory countries have bought in, at least to some extent.

Mainstream and scientific news outlets (a nice piece at the Globe and Mail; here’s Nature’s take) are both shouting the headline that 1,000,000 species are at risk of extinction:

chart by species
Image captured from the media release of the 2019 IPBES Global Biodiversity Report (Link below) shows the state of deterioration in nature across several taxonomic groups.

and you’re likely to see some version of these facts and figures:

  • About 3/4 of the planet’s land and 2/3 of its ocean areas have been “significantly altered” by people, driven in large part by the production of food
  • Crop and livestock operations currently co-opt more than 33% of Earth’s land surface and 75% of its freshwater resources.
  • 60 billion tons of ‘materials’ are extracted from nature for human use each year – the rate of growth of this extraction is quite high (up 60% since 1980; still increasing)
  • We aren’t meeting the AICHI Biodiversity Targets, deadline 2020.
  • We are compromising the ability to meet most SDGs, deadline 2030.
  • Ditch the distortionary subsidies for big improvements! This is just as true for fisheries – as shown by UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries’s long term efforts – as it is for big oil.
  • Climate change isn’t THE major cause– YET – direct human manipulation of the environment still holds that claim:

    proximate causes
    Image captured from the media release of the 2019 IPBES Global Biodiversity Report (Link below) shows the proximate causes of deterioration in nature and their connectivity to social values
  • BUT, climate change is set to make the extinction process more rapid and more intense, especially for systems that may be close to regime changes with significant connectivity to the rest of the world’s natural systems, including
  • Climate change solutions are biodiversity solutions and biodiversity solutions are climate change solutions (they are also complementary problems)
  • Invasive species – a big component of my research and a frequent topic on this blog – are still way up there on the list of (avoidable) external costs of our current usage patterns for natural systems. Small individual decisions can have big social impacts – which also makes them a good problem to study for developing integrated bio-economic solutions! (I won’t link to 1/2 my vita here, but two of the most recent efforts are discussed on this blog here and here).
  • Of 18 categories that summarize Nature’s Contributions to People,  only three – energy, food and feed, and materials and assistance, are increasing in their trend (see figure). Note Nature’s Contribution to People presents a relatively new vocabulary aimed at increasing the inclusion of social science and human decision-making into the more traditional Ecosystem Services language, and is not without controversy.

NCPs change

Image captured from the media release of the 2019 IPBES Global Biodiversity Report (Link below) shows the 18 categories of Nature’s Contributions to People – only energy, food, and materials are increasing.

You can see who’s in and who’s on the sidelines here. Eyeballing it, it seems that Small Island States (aka Large Ocean States), some oil producing nations, and a few random places like Iceland are not signed up as full members. Whether this is primarily due to financial constraints or other vested interests would be nice to know. Both are likely contributors.

The co-leaders stressed in their presentations that policy changes will need to be bold in order to integrate across supply chains, producers and consumers of nature’s capital and to defuse the power of vested interests in the status quo, particularly in agriculture, energy, and transportation.

These vested interests have come to be through long run investments in natural capital deepening – and in so doing have supported the substantial global growth following the industrial revolution to the present time (see reminders from US Economic history here and here). This capital deepening has come at a cost, however, that is probably higher than it needs to be. That is the hope – that we can produce and consume to the same levels of well-being — or at least, at levels that we can persuade ourselves are at least as good if not better, by switching perceptions of well-being from e.g. luxury consumption that generates excessive waste to cradle-to-cradle consumption that leaves future generations with the same or better flexibility of value-creating options we hold today.

The summary and the media presentation pushed the notions that the problems – and their solutions – are human driven, integrated with climate change concerns, and tied to equity concerns over the distribution of global resources. In particular, equity concerns globally impact the indigenous peoples inhabiting a quarter of global land, with that land maintaining significantly more of it share of global biodiversity – including wild reserves of domesticated crops. Tenuous property rights and other institutional challenges, population growth and urbanization, the reliance on incomplete measures of value in public decision-making, and the confounding of economic growth and economic development have generated substantial and increasing welfare inequality.

IPBES’s holistic approach favors inclusion of diverse stakeholder demands for nature and its contributions, so that increased attention has been paid to incorporating ways of knowing and learning that differ from western scientific thought. These differences manifest in e.g. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Indigenous Knowledge, and Local Ecological Knowledge. Among many, many other benefits, they can provide, in economic language, institutions and mechanisms for natural capital broadening, as opposed to deepening. I mean to capture the more complete set of nature’s contributions to people, or ecosystem services, with this terminology – that is, an awareness of the real tradeoffs across dimensions not currently present on a balance sheet, yet all too real nonetheless – a most direct example would be how to get healing medicines from nature. Such perspective has been largely ignored, or worse, expropriated, in the processes driving agriculture, energy and transportation, forcing unnecessarily costly tradeoffs and/or increasing inequality.

In addition to highlighting some of the findings above in particular about land use change, the nature news piece notes a related report on the effectiveness of the panel (summary) – essentially a quality check on dissemination and stakeholder engagement – that points to a worrisome fact those long involved in the project, including MERE’s Eva Roth, already know well – that the IPBES project is not itself sustainably funded. Voluntary contributions of time and effort are the rule rather than the exception, meaning much more piecemeal science and participation than is optimal.

The summary report and the media presentation focused on the need to align private and business interests with scientific and conservation efforts; resource dependent industries ranging from wine production and ski resorts to automobile manufacturing and industrial fishing must come not only to understand the value of nature in their own supply chains but also the opportunity costs of their use of resources in those chains. That is because the opportunity costs will include feedback effects into climate change that will affect the planet’s productive capabilities.

While the scientists involved believe that continuation of the human race is not yet at stake, humanity – in a more inclusive definition that elevates it above simple survival – may well be. If we trade off the benefits of forest bathing for slightly cheaper toilet paper, our bums will be no cleaner but our mental health will suffer much more than the few cents’ savings can recover.

A step toward such re-alignment can come from improved accounting, so that these trade-offs are laid bare for everyone to see and decide using more accurate information. This is a primary goal of the evolving System of Environmental Economic Accounting and other like-minded efforts to reform GDP accounting to include natural capital and its flows (why should we do this?). This, as is noted by IPBES, requires better and more valuation of Nature’s Contributions to People, Ecosystem Services, and/or all the other myriad important contributors to well-being that are left out of standard national income accounts. In other words the world needs a lot more environmental and resource economics, as has been discussed on this blog frequently, including here and here!!

The report summary is here. If you want the full launch experience, you can watch the media release from the plenary here. Don’t be too daunted by the video length – at an hour and 45 minutes, it may seem a lot – but you can skip the first 20 minutes of introductions easily, and the presentations by the three co-chairs (Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz, and Eduardo Briondizio) are concise, clear, and informative, followed by a (mainly) interesting Q and A period with insightful highlights from UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability‘s own Kai Chan, and other global contributing authors. The full 1500 page report, drawn from over 15,000 studies, is not yet publicly available.

Cover image: “flamingo scenery” by Global Environment Facility (GEF) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0