A few short weeks ago, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US gathered as the G7 to strategize action on five global challenges: climate change, economic recovery, public health, sustainable development, and social justice. Although biodiversity loss was discussed in relation to other issues on the agenda, the current mass extinction crisis was hardly given its due.
This oversight is disappointing but not surprising. Most people don’t realize the extent of biodiversity’s upsides. Indeed, we often hear biodiversity described as an incentive for living more sustainably, as if biodiversity is its own reward. And while that’s true enough for some of us, biodiversity is also instrumental. Actually, it’s mission-critical in solving the biggest problems facing humankind.
Our Changing Climate: Biodiversity is collapsing worldwide. Here’s why., May 8, 2020.
WWF International: Biodiversity Loss | Untangled, February 17, 2022.
NOAA Sanctuaries: International Partnership of Marine Protected Areas, Biodiversity, and Climate Change, June 2, 2021.
Consider the marquee items on the G7’s agenda, starting with climate change. Every year, the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems collectively remove some 5.5 billion tons of CO2 from our atmosphere. That’s nearly half of humankind’s annual carbon footprint. And while trees deserve much of the credit, wildlife is essential to slowing down global warming. From the sea otters who steward our oceans’ carbon-absorbing kelp forests to the elephants who help forest canopies grow higher, capturing more greenhouse gasses, we owe a great deal to our non-human allies in the fight against climate change.
The second G7 topic was economic recovery, which might seem removed from the natural world, but nature’s services are indispensable to the global economy. Last year, World Bank economists estimated that the collapse of ecosystems that provide wild pollination, marine fisheries, and timber would slash $2.7 trillion from global GDP. That’s an even larger shortfall than if a major producing nation, like India, Mexico, Brazil, or Indonesia, completely exited the global economy. Not to mention, everything we do to protect biodiversity -- from ecotourism and landscape conservation to resource management -- creates good-paying jobs and valuable investment opportunities worldwide.
Deutsche Bank: Protecting our oceans | Towards a sustainable 'Blue Economy,’ July 6, 2021.
Center For American Progress: Transitioning to a Nature-Centered Global Economy, October 25, 2021.
Los Angeles Times: How pandemics are linked to climate change, May 21, 2020.
Public health, and third on the agenda, also depends on biodiversity in obvious ways. One of researchers’ most remarkable findings is that biodiversity loss actually increases disease transmission, and that preserving biodiverse ecosystems generally reduces the prevalence of infectious diseases. Just as our own microbiomes protect our bodies against germs, a healthy, diverse biosphere protects our species from all kinds of viruses.
Even major cities’ public health infrastructure depends on natural ecosystems in the surrounding countryside. Take, for example, the New York City Watershed -- a region the size of Delaware that includes forests, wetlands, and the countless plants and animals who live there. Unlike most watersheds, which pump water through a filtration plant, the NYC Watershed relies on ecosystems along the Hudson River to filter water naturally. The end result is some of the cleanest drinking water in the world.
This sort of natural infrastructure offers a practical model for the G7’s commitment to sustainable development. By any measure, governments around the world aren’t just failing to halt biodiversity loss -- one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) -- they’re backsliding. Here, the G7 should lead by example. By forging transnational partnerships to build and maintain nature-based solutions (NbS) -- for carbon storage, water filtration, food production, and protection from natural disasters -- world leaders could close the gap before the SDGs’ 2030 deadline.
Even better, since many of the world’s biodiversity havens are located in lower- and middle-income countries, nature-based infrastructure projects will draw foreign direct investment (FDI) into the economies that need it most. For example, IFAW’s Room to Roam initiative is connecting protected areas from Tanzania to Namibia. Developing these corridors will allow elephants and other wildlife to move freely across their home range; it also generates viable, long-term economic opportunities across Sub-Saharan Africa.
IFWA: As wildlife and people run out of space, we're creating Room to Roam, March 10, 2022.
CBS: Climate change could displace 200 million in 20 years, disaster relief organization warns, June 1, 2022.
CBC News: The National: Using Indigenous knowledge to tackle climate change, March 15, 2022.
In this sense, conservation has more to do with social justice than many would think. Biodiversity loss disproportionately affects people who are already living on the margins, and widens gaps in the distribution of wealth and global influence. As just one example, in many parts of the world, the task of collecting water and wood for fuel falls largely to women and girls. Desertification forces them to travel farther, leaving less time to access education, earn a living, or participate in local governance and land management.
Meanwhile, as a recent IFAW report points out, nearly 75% of biodiversity funding has been spent in the developed world, while Africa and Latin America -- home to many of the most biodiverse regions on the planet -- have received less than 15% combined. That’s unconscionable and unsustainable.
If G7 leaders are serious about realizing their aspirations, they must prioritize biodiversity -- and budget accordingly. In addition, the G7 should use their influence to rally the private sector to mobilize a historic, global investment in conservation. The same IFAW report is unequivocal on this point:
Natural ecosystems offer some of the most cost-effective climate mitigation and adaptation responses that address the biodiversity crisis… Despite making up more than a third of the solutions required to tackle the climate crisis, they receive less than 2% of global public finance for climate adaptation and no more than 8% of all public climate finance.
By all accounts, the private sector is interested in capitalizing on NbS. However, executives and board members are often unclear about where to invest, let alone how much and over what timeline. Public policymakers can accelerate these decisions by chartering the valuation of ecosystem services and creating investment opportunities in biodiverse areas.
Now is the time to demand that our leaders put biodiversity at the top of the agenda. From climate resilience, economic recovery, and public health to sustainable development and social justice, this much is certain: Saving other species can and will save our own. Instead of pigeonholing biodiversity as an "environmental” issue, G7 leaders should recognize the absolute necessity of plants, animals, and their ecosystems -- not only for conservation’s sake, but for solving humanity’s most urgent problems.
The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 30, 2021.
WW0 COP26 Talks: Wade Crawford, California's Natural Resources Secretary, November 8, 2021.
WW0 COP26 Talks: Dr. Cécile Girardin, Science Lead, Oxford Biodiversity Network, November 10, 2021.
WW0 IG Live: Enric Sala and John Kerry streamed on September 9, 2020.