Photo of a Northern Quoll
Northern Quoll sighted in the Kimberley region

One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, according to the IPBES #GlobalAssessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published in May. What can we do about it?

The report terrifyingly documents how human actions have degraded many aspects of nature, including the health of the soil we all depend upon for food and nature’s fundamental contributions to the foundations of human life.

Among its conclusions is this existential heart-stopper: “This loss of diversity, including genetic diversity, poses a serious risk to global security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change.”

This report cannot be easily dismissed. Aimed at policymakers, it was produced painstakingly over three years by a team of experts from over 60 countries, and peer-reviewed with over 15,000 reviewer comments.

Let’s concentrate on the staggering statistic of one million species. Some critics questioned if it is true. The researchers used a recent mid-low estimate that there exist in the world a total of 8.1 million animal and plant species, of which around 5.5 million are insects (75 per cent).

Their rough estimate is that 550,000 insect species and 625,000 animal and plant species are threatened – actually over a million or one seventh of the total.

Dr Andy Purvis, coordinating lead author of the report and life sciences research leader at London’s Natural History Museum, says that the research is based on IUCN’s painstaking, thorough, peer-reviewed and transparent assessments of the conservation status of nearly 100,000 animal and plant species, supplemented with other information.

We depend upon the species and the habitats that they preserve for our own survival. When we see images of the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra on fire, this is our house that is burning down, as French President Macron said last week.

When, as the report says, soil health is ruined by too much artificial fertilisers and pesticides the result is a reduction in the projected number of harvests left in the future. People will undoubtedly starve unless something radical is done.

Two ideas for action are suggested by recent announcements that could help if spread widely: adopting the model of the UNESCO biosphere, and reducing our ecological footprints.

New UNESCO biospheres

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves seek to reconcile human activity with the conservation of biodiversity through the sustainable use of natural resources. In June this year, 18 more of these were announced in different parts of the world.

Making the announcement, UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay said, in reference to the loss of biodiversity, “After diagnosing the issue at stake, highlighted by the recent report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the vitality of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves gives us cause for hope.

“Following the adoption of this historic report, no one will be able to claim that they did not know. We can no longer continue to destroy the diversity of life. This is our responsibility towards future generations.”

She went on to say that, “Each UNESCO biosphere reserve is an open sky laboratory for sustainable development, for concrete and lasting solutions, for innovation and good practices. They seal a new alliance between the world of science and youth, between humans and the environment.”

The 18 new sites are in 12 countries, making the World Network of Biosphere Reserves now number 701 biosphere reserves in 124 countries around the globe. More than 250 million people live in these areas.

Adding natural World Heritage sites and Global Geoparks to Biosphere Reserves, over 10 million square kilometres, an area equivalent to the size of China, is protected with UNESCO’s help.

  • The full list of Biosphere Reserves can be found here.
Isle of Wight, United Kingdom – courtesy of UNESCO
Isle of Wight, United Kingdom – courtesy of UNESCO

Some of the countries hosting the new reserves include Norway, Korea, Poland, Japan, Italy, Sweden and the Russian Federation.

The Isle of Wight Biosphere Reserve covers 91,496 hectares, including the 38,000 ha Isle of Wight proper and marine areas along its 92 km coastline. It is home to 140,000 people and the second most populous island in northern Europe.

Its selection is designed to demonstrate how humans can coexist with nature in a mutually beneficial way.

The Isle of Wight has a strong tradition of environmental action with many initiatives promoting environmental education and awareness, increased community engagement, and healthier lifestyles and diets.

It is developing eco-tourism and working with universities and institutions to foster environmental innovation and attract new investment, testing new measures for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Ecological footprint calculators for Portuguese cities

Awareness and understanding of one’s ecological footprint can lead to changes in production, consumption and increases in biocapacity (nature) that cause a reduction of the footprint to more sustainable levels.

If everyone was to live like people in the UK, for example, we would need three planet Earths to support the entire human population. As it is we globally need around one and a half, as our impacts are so great.

According to the Global Footprint Network, it was in the early ’70s that humanity passed the point at which it could be sustained by the resources of the Earth and has been living off the future ever since.

Guimarães in Portugal

Portugal’s Cities ecological footprint project, now in its second year, saw footprint calculators for six cities unveiled to the public in May.

Residents in these Portuguese cities can now use their city’s calculator to assess their household’s use of natural resources and compare it with the city average.

A workshop in Guimarães introducing citizens to the ecological footprint calculator.

Guimarães and the other cities held workshops to let citizens learn how to use the tool and  spread the word as widely as possible throughout the local community.

These are calibrated with specific data collected from their respective municipality during the first year of the project.

The calculators were praised at the launch by the local councillor for urbanism Dr. Seara de Sá, who sees it as a new and stronger communication tool that can support the municipality’s efforts to reduce its ecological footprint through helping citizens think globally while acting locally.

To populate the calculator with data, a baselining survey for Guimarães had to be done. This calculated that the regions ecological footprint is 3.66 global hectares (gha) per person, which, while 7 per cent lower than the national average, is more than twice the sustainable level.

Like most municipalities, food comprises the largest share of Guimarães’ ecological footprint (29 per cent), largely due to the residents’ demand for seafood and meat, followed by transportation (21 per cent).

Its biocapacity is also low, at 0.19 global ha (gha) per person – 85 per cent lower than the national average.

The calculators were developed from Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator, which has had a major impact raising global awareness of the implications of consumption choices, and has over two million users every year.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities. From October he is teaching an online Post-Graduate Certificate in “One Planet” Governance.

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  1. Nice one Mr Thorpe and GFN! I have been loosely rolling around (inside my head) the idea of developing a similar fartprint calculator for ordinary planetarians so that we may have access to a tool that facilitates our coming to grips with precisely how our daily choices spit in our nest or otherwise…I’ve heard you can get a licence to keep a quoll as a pet in Victoria. Quokk on, eco-warriors.