Biodiversity loss and climate change are humanity’s two biggest threats. And yet, despite the unavoidable need for us to tackle these crises in tandem, climate change gets the majority of the funding, attention and publicity, while biodiversity loss sits in its shadow.
So why is everyone leaving biodiversity in the corner?
On a hunt for answers, I put this question to Wedgetail Founder Lisa Miller and Xylo Systems Founder Camille Goldstone-Henry.
First though, what is biodiversity, and biodiversity loss?
“Biodiversity refers to the diversity of all the living things, which includes animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and algae,” explains Lisa Miller.
“Biodiversity can also be examined at the genetic level (the genetic diversity within a species’ population) and all the way up at an ecosystem level (the diversity of the ecosystems various species inhabit).”
“I like to describe biodiversity as a Jenga block,” Camille Goldstone-Henry adds.
“Each wooden block represents a species — whether it’s a mammal, a bird or a fungi species. All of these species blocks make up the tower, and the tower is biodiversity.
“A functioning ecosystem needs many different species. As you start taking blocks out of that tower (such as when a species is considered extinct or habitat is destroyed) it starts to teeter — and if you take too many blocks out, it falls over.”
And make no mistake, our jenga towers are teetering.
Species are dying off as much as 1,000 times more frequently than before the arrival of humans 60 million years ago. Wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018, while 50% of all coral reefs have been lost since the 1950s.
“Here in Australia, we've lost about 100 species in the last 100 years. We have a terrible scorecard,” Camille says. “Another statistic that really baffles me is that 1 million species are currently threatened with extinction. That is just far too many.”
“Globally, nature loss is huge,” Lisa adds.
“For example, in Ecuador, 98% of the Pacific Equatorial Rainforest on the country’s coast has been lost. This deforestation has huge implications, not just for the loss of species and ecosystems, but it impacts climate change, and the entire weather and water cycle of the country. Even in places such as Europe, what we think of as a ‘healthy landscape’ is actually a very altered landscape, and it has been since Roman times. A lot of the forests have already been cleared centuries ago and the task of restoration is going to be enormous and very costly.”
“The too-hard basket”
So the question remains: why do we keep pulling blocks from our Jenga towers, when each fall pushes us closer to a mass extinction event?
It comes down to complexity, the pair tell me.
“People have put biodiversity in the too hard basket,” Camille explains.
“There’s much more simplicity in focusing on climate change and decarbonisation. It's now easy to measure ‘carbon out, carbon in’. It's a single metric.”
And because this simple carbon-in-carbon-out equation essentially plays out in an atmosphere we all share, we can’t easily hide from climate change, Lisa explains. Biodiversity, on the other hand, is often localised and can be out of sight.
“All across the world, forests are being lost, but people in urban environments and cities don't always witness this loss of nature”, Lisa says.
“However, while they might not see the clearing of land, they’ll experience weather events, such as storms, happening in that atmosphere, impacting their cities. They feel the impacts of climate change in a big way.”
Tackling two crises in tandem
But the world we live in is highly, highly interconnected, to the point where tackling the climate crisis in isolation can actually worsen the biodiversity crisis.
“This is the reality in some areas in Europe where they have done a lot of work restoring peatlands,” Lisa tells me.
“These landscapes should be incredible carbon sinks, but because they are so degraded and drained, these ecosystems are actually emitting carbon.”
Animals are also essential to ecosystem health. Through their movements and behaviours, animals distribute seeds and nutrients and disturb the soil through digging, trampling and nest building. All this action helps plants grow and store more carbon, and can even prevent wildfires.
“You can have what appears to be a healthy ecosystem in terms of the vegetation, but without the animals, and you're not getting the same results in carbon draw-down,” Lisa explains.
And this is all animals, even the ones you wouldn’t expect, such as vultures, which have been stereotyped as “harbingers of death” since ancient times.
“Decaying animal bodies release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, Lisa explains. “But a recent study shows that by eating this already-dead prey, vultures actually prevent most of these emissions and keep nutrients cycling.
“As humans, we love to be linear and reductionist. But it's actually the ecosystem working altogether that holds that carbon in. You can’t reduce biodiversity to one number or metric.
“We need to look at the whole puzzle.”
The future is bright (and biodiverse)
Thankfully, the tide is turning, and biodiversity is primed and ready to take to the dance-floor.
Camille credits this shift to “technologies being more advanced, the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures pushing companies to start thinking about their nature impacts, the Science Based Targets for Nature being released, and the Australian Government starting to look at environmental legislation, with the recent release of the Nature Repair Market Bill 2023.”
“All of this is pushing innovation. The biodiversity conversation now is where the climate conversation was five years ago,” she adds.
“Even in the last six months I've seen this huge shift, not just in funding, but in the corporate mindset considering nature. It’s only going to accelerate. I predict the biodiversity market will be booming by the end of next year.”