Can we avoid ecological collapse?

  • May 7, 2019
Can we avoid ecological collapse?

Last week, the Seventh Session of the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) met in Paris. The goal for the 132 member governments and contributing institutions was to summarise the magnitude of ecological destruction on the planet and create a map to the path forward. Their report found that declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services will continue through 2050 and beyond in every future the experts modelled except one that includes transformative change to how our societies and economies operate.

The Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was the first of its kind published and acts as an update to the 2005 Millennial Ecosystem Assessment. It found that nearly one million species face extinction and that land organisms have declined in numbers by an average of 20% since 1900. (The 2018 Living Planet Report found that this value is much higher for vertebrates, which are estimated to have declined by 60% since 1970.) The main driver of these declines is the modification of natural habitats for human uses like agriculture, mining and other industrial purposes. Climate change, hunting/poaching, pollution and invasive species were also found to be drivers.

For anyone following biodiversity trends, these findings may not be surprising, but this report goes one step further than most biodiversity assessments by linking this degradation to sustainable development targets. By 2020, it’s projected that only four of 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be met, and biodiversity declines will undermine 80% of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including those related to poverty, world hunger, and public health. It makes clear that biodiversity conservation (and, ideally, restoration) is no longer an ambition driven by morality but one that is essential to ensure basic human rights to people across the planet.

Transformative change is vital

Our patterns of consumption are undeniably driving biodiversity loss and other global crises such as climate change. Our economic models for assessing how ‘well’ a country is doing rely on growth every year on a planet that is finite in its resources. We truly need to reassess our values, livelihoods and economies to figure out what parts are worth keeping and which are sending us to the tipping point.

Transformative change is daunting, but this report is not the first call to action for us to rethink how we live our lives. Instead, it complements those by experts in climate change and human rights that highlight the unjust ways our societies are structured. The bulk of the work lies with Western countries that account for most of the world’s consumption and per capita carbon emissions. Furthermore, environmental change in the report is measured using baselines that are only a few decades old, but most of the natural destruction in North America and Europe took place well before these dates. To be sure, even in their historically more pristine condition, these regions held nowhere near the amount of biodiversity that exists in the Amazon or Indonesia. However, these regions have the resources to risk testing sustainable development pathways and, critically, are far from achieving environmental justice even within their own borders.

Vote for your future

Saving our planet requires more than buying a reusable straw and bringing your own bags to the supermarket (although, of course every little bit helps). It requires voting for politicians at local and national levels who recognise the real threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. It requires coordinated efforts at all scales from local environmental groups planting trees and picking up litter to intergovernmental bodies like IPBES communicating with one another.

It especially requires lifting up and amplifying the voices of underrepresented groups, particularly indigenous people whose expertise has been ignored for too long. Despite reports of some delegates at IPBES complaining that discussions of “gender mainstreaming” and indigenous rights were ‘political’ rather than useful for tackling biodiversity loss, conservation need to learn from their scarred history of failure directly related to overlooking the needs and value of local people.

This report offers expert advice on how to move forward and quite literally help save the lives of people and the planet. The main question that’s left it: can we organise quickly enough to act on it?

*Dr Collin VanBuren [2013] did his PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge where he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He is now doing postdoctoral research at Ohio State University. Picture credit: Deforestation by Jami Dwyer –, Public Domain,

Collin Vanburen

Collin Vanburen

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2013 PhD Earth Sciences
  • Christ's College

My research and general interests centre around biodiversity and nature. Specifically, I am interested in the functional consequences of biodiversity change. I use functional traits (traits of organisms that are related to how they interact with their environment, such as flat claws for digging) and ecological modelling techniques to measure changes in functional diversity through space and time. My postdoc at OSU seeks to test how small mammal functional diversity changed in the face of climate instability before and after the extinction of large mammals (e.g. mammoths). My other projects aim to test how amphibian communities are structured over large land masses and to quantify the functional impact of amphibian declines due to threats like invasive species.

In my PhD, I researched how sources of variation such as sex or season affects the skin thickness of amphibians to better understand if skin physiology might explain the disproportionately high number of amphibian species threatened with extinction. Before my PhD, I studied the functional traits of fossil species to better understand the ecology of dinosaurs.

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