Extinction contradiction: Why climate action isn’t always good for biodiversity

Our net-zero commitments should bring wider ecological benefits, but if we’re not careful they might exacerbate another global crisis

February 2021

Words by Tom Butterworth

Illustration of Tom Butterworth is technical director for biodiversity and natural capital at WSP in the UK

“It does not necessarily follow that climate action is inherently good for biodiversity. In fact, some actions could be actively undermining it”

Imagine growing up in an environment where the only animals were rats, cockroaches and pigeons — what would it be like to be human? It’s a nightmare scenario, but that is exactly where we are heading if we do not act now to stem the catastrophic loss of biodiversity around the world. Nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history and 1 million species are now threatened with extinction, some within decades.

The issue of biodiversity collapse can get lost amid the urgent debates around climate change. It is easy to assume that decarbonization is the only environmental game in town — that if we can only cut our emissions to zero, nature will inevitably flourish. But while the natural environment will be crucial to dealing with climate change and its impacts, it does not necessarily follow that climate action is inherently good for biodiversity. In fact, some actions could be actively undermining it.

Take carbon sequestration as an example. One way for countries to reduce their contribution to climate change would be to plant fast-growing trees that absorb a lot of carbon. But this runs the risk of further unbalancing local ecosystems, especially if we introduce non-native species. Could those plantations increase flood risk, change the acidity of water or soil, or disrupt species in the food chain? We must also be careful not to plant them on habitats of intrinsic value, or where they could undermine or counteract other ecosystem services. Even if we did manage to meet all of our carbon targets in this way, we might find ourselves saving the world while sacrificing much of what makes it special.

In the UK, since 1970 we have lost roughly 60% of our biodiversity, in terms of species abundance. By 2050, if we carry on destroying natural flora and fauna at the same pace, we stand to lose 95%. So if you were able to see 20 owls in 1970, you would see just one in 2050. And how often did anyone ever see 20 owls? People who live in remote regions may still have the occasional opportunity to glimpse our dwindling wildlife, but the overwhelming majority of us will never see any.

Suppose we were talking about Renaissance paintings, or Shakespeare’s plays, or Mozart’s music: which 95% would we be happy to destroy, never to be seen, heard or read again? In that situation, there would be a justifiable outcry, and yet these works —
or something of equal value — are more likely to be recreated than a butterfly species that has evolved over millions of years. There is still so much we have to learn from nature, and subtleties that we can’t possibly imagine because we don’t yet know how to see them. We may never get the chance.

The COP 15 UN biodiversity conference is to be held in Kunming, China in 2021. The hope is that we will get to a point where governments have legally binding targets, as they do on climate change, but there is a real reluctance to take the necessary action. Historically several key countries have refused even to engage. If COP 15 does result in an agreement to set binding targets, it could still take several more years to agree what they should be and whether they should apply everywhere equally, before countries finally sign up. Then it may take several more years to ratify the targets and bring them into law locally.

Like climate change, biodiversity loss is a global issue that requires coordinated global action. But it differs in one very significant way. No matter where carbon is released, climate change affects everybody everywhere. With biodiversity loss, the impact is most apparent at a local level. This makes it a much more complicated, nuanced story to tell and the value we get from nature much harder to articulate. The loss of the Amazon rainforest will have a direct impact on the people of that region, but in the UK it may be evident only in the rising price of chicken, as the supply of cheap feed dries up — an effect that very few people will relate to the cause.

"Like climate change, biodiversity loss is a global issue that requires coordinated global action. But it differs in one very significant way"

The flipside of this is that, while nature is a hugely valuable asset, it is not always local people who benefit from it. Two of the most important drugs for treating leukaemia and Hodgkins’ disease were derived from Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle flower, but virtually none of the profits have returned to Madagascar itself, one of the world’s poorest countries. It is easy to see why even people on the frontline of biodiversity loss may feel they have little to gain from preventing it.

The biodiversity movement is just at the start of the journey that climate change has taken over the last five to ten years. While it plays catch-up, it is all the more important that we design decarbonization projects carefully so that they deliver wider benefits to the natural environment, and above all don’t undermine it. That might mean that we don’t store quite as many tonnes of carbon per hectare, but we will get to appreciate and benefit from the many other things that nature can do for us. We need landscapes to provide not only carbon sequestration, but flood relief, improvements to air quality, biodiversity and nice places for people to experience and enjoy. We’ve got to devise integrated solutions, which means thinking beyond simply planting non-native fast-growing trees.

There’s a mindset in Western thinking of dealing with only one issue at a time before moving on to focus on the next. We need to change that mentality — because we will be dealing with the impacts of our current solutions for centuries to come.

Tom Butterworth is technical director for biodiversity and natural capital at WSP in the UK

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5 comments on “Extinction contradiction: Why climate action isn’t always good for biodiversity

  1. Jenny B on

    I’ve been reading quite a bit on biodiversity lost over the past year and a half, while my work has focused on GHG emissions. You make some crucial points, Tom!

    Reply
    • Tom Butterworth on

      Thanks Jenny. Bringing management of GHG emissions and biodiversity together is vital – and really interesting area to work in at the moment.

      Reply
  2. John Harding on

    Tom. Would be good to have some pointers and insights on what can be done by better design and specification for biodiversity. How can we make an inclusive environment for biodiversity to flourish in our designs? For example, studies show how the colour temperature of external lighting affects insects, nesting birds, plants, trees. How could a change to warmer colour temperatures that have shown to be better for biodiversity be implemented? Instead of lighting trees, for effect, why light them at all? How could our designs include habitats and be kinder? These may be small steps that can be taken now.

    Reply
    • Tom Butterworth on

      Thanks for the comment John. I would be delighted to discuss and share some pointers about designing for biodiversity and other benefits, like carbon sequestration. The points you make about lighting etc are not small points at all and simple changes can have a significant impacts on biodiversity. Please feel free to get in touch with me directly via LinkedIn.

      Reply

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