COP26: Shocking rate of species extinction threatens the health of the natural world on which humans depend — Philip Lymbery
I feel fortunate to live in a rural area, where I can enjoy my garden with its bird feeders that attract all sorts of cheerful, colourful birds.
I live in a small farm hamlet with my wife Helen and our dog, Duke. This place I call home is my lens for watching the countryside. Every day, I walk with Duke through the fields and woods and each day I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to witness nature in all its forms, through the changing seasons.
As a lifelong naturalist, I am acutely aware of our biodiversity crisis. How intensive agriculture, cutting down forests and ripping out hedges the world over, removes vital habitat for wildlife and, in so doing, reduces our ability to replenish oxygen supplies and take carbon out of the atmosphere.
The recent news that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world was no surprise. In Scotland, more than ten per cent of native species are at risk of extinction and the outlook is bleak for one in nine species, including red squirrels, Scottish wildcats and capercaillies.
I’ve lost count of the times we’ve talked in my local bird group about how lapwings and other species have declined. Lapwings now have the dubious reputation of being the most rapidly declining bird species in Europe.
I’ve lived in this hamlet for four years without ever seeing a lapwing or a hedgehog. From time to time, we have woodlarks, welcome spill-overs from remnant heathland protected by conservation organisations. I’m always struck by the irony that any sightings of skylark, the woodlark’s ‘common’ cousin, has me scribbling in my notebook as if a red-letter day.
Over Britain’s biggest habitat, farmland, wildlife losses have continued apace. Populations of farmland birds have, on average, more than halved since 1970, with skylarks, starlings and lapwings among the hardest hit. The fact that species which have suffered serious long-term declines are still declining is particularly worrying.
The tragedy is that biodiversity, which describes the variety of life across Earth, from flamingos and fungi to forests, is declining faster than it has at any other time in human history. The rate of extinction is up to a thousand times higher than the average over the past 10 million years, and is accelerating.
In the words of António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, addressing the One Planet Summit of global leaders in Paris, 2021 “must be the year to reconcile humanity with nature. Until now, we have been destroying our planet. We have been abusing it as if we have a spare one.”
There can be no doubt that our own future and the health of all life on Earth depends on us making peace with nature. Together, the community of plants and animals in an area make up an ecosystem and perform functions that help make our planet inhabitable. Nearly half the world’s human population relies directly on nature, from fish to forests.
If Mother Nature could speak, she would weep. She would be incredulous at the way humanity has plundered and polluted her natural wealth and resources, and left in sadness at how more natural ways of food production have been sidelined, causing great cruelty to farmed animals and undermining the soil on which our futures depend.
With two UN conferences taking place this year, one on the biodiversity crisis, the other on the climate crisis, world leaders must take action.
Last week, it was the turn of the United Nations COP15 biodiversity summit. The aim to establish firm goals that would halt the loss of wildlife and the degradation of habitats. It was to have been the biggest biodiversity summit in a decade, but was delayed three times due to the pandemic. It’s second phase will take place in Kunming, China, in the first half of 2022.
“We are the culprits on biodiversity loss, we are responsible and we have to change our actions to make a difference,” United Nations biodiversity chief Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, said last Monday. Mrema went on to say, she was hopeful that a new ten-year plan would be signed with 21 targets on issues from stemming the loss of species to restoring degraded habitats that would “change our activities from nature negative to nature positive”.
Ultimately, our biodiversity and climate are interlinked and success or failure will depend on progress with the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in early November. Climate change is a crucial underlying factor that’s helping to drive the destruction of nature around the world.
One only has to watch world news to see that somewhere on the planet there are fires burning, droughts or floods. We are at a tipping point, but there is still time. However, if we don’t make significant changes to our lifestyles and diets now, the disappearance of between one third and one half of all species will upend ecosystems and destabilise human civilisation.
It’s no longer a case of why, or how, but when. We have less than a decade — just nine harvests left — to achieve this urgent, transformative change needed for a liveable future.
But being able to take action isn’t confined to our world leaders, it is also something that all of us can play a part in. We can make healthier choices for both the planet and ourselves through our diets. By eating more vegetables, less meat, dairy and eggs and by growing food in ways that are more nature-friendly and sustainable.
One thing is for certain. We don’t have the luxury of kicking the proverbial ‘can down the road’. It is time to seize the moment and change the face of food because nature matters.
The future of humanity matters. And nothing matters more than the surety of a healthy planet for our children.
Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming and United Nations Food Systems Champion. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf
This article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 18th October, 2021