Try to think when was the last time you saw a butterfly. Maybe it was last summer, or the year before, but more likely you don’t remember. The number of butterflies in the Netherlands fell by 84 percent between 1890 and 2017, and fifteen species no longer exist at all, according to Dutch research a few years ago. The butterfly bushes are still blooming, but their guests are gone.
The extinction of animal species is a natural phenomenon, this is how it went for millions of years, even without human influence. But since the Industrial Revolution, the natural process has been disrupted and has slid further and further into an uncontrollable and, above all, frightening speed that no one is quite sure how to define other than a new, sixth wave of extinction – during the last, some 66 million years ago, a meteorite impact heralded the end of the dinosaurs.
At least one million animal species are currently threatened with extinction, scientists wrote in a UN report three years ago. The speed at which this is happening is unprecedented: we are currently losing 100 to 1000 times more species than can be considered natural. In this century, we can say goodbye to a third of all mammals, bird species and amphibians.
We are the main reason for that acceleration. We have manipulated the world, felled forests and built cities, destroyed the balance of countless ecosystems by introducing exotic things, polluted the deepest troughs and highest mountains. Of all the environmental and climate issues, the loss of biodiversity has gone farthest beyond the boundaries of planetary boundaries. A disaster that often takes place outside of our awareness.
Biodiversity loss is usually a regional phenomenon, such as the decline in the number of butterflies in the Netherlands, but can have far-reaching consequences for the greater whole. In the butterfly example, this decline means less food for birds, which then move away, causing the dispersal of seeds from trees and plants to stagnate, the survival rate of dependent species falling, ultimately resulting in a global biodiversity crisis. One loss triggers another.
People will leave, flee, to places where a few animals languish in a zoo
The world is until December 19 gathered in Montreal, Canada, for a UN summit on biodiversity. The conference was supposed to take place in China two years ago but was canceled due to the pandemic – precious time given the current state of nature. The goal is to reach a new agreement to halt the loss of global biodiversity by 2030 and even increase diversity by 2050. What Paris was to climate, Montreal must be to biodiversity, conference chair Elizabeth Mrema said ahead of the summit. According to scientists and other experts, this is the last chance to save nature. Can the largest predator of all time prevent ecosystems from collapsing worldwide?
Although it is hopeful that an agreement is likely to be reached in Montreal, world leaders do not seem to understand the importance of the summit – only Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is present, the rest seem to prioritize the conclusion of the World Cup . The main goal of the summit is to agree on 22 biodiversity targets for 2030. The draft plans, drawn up by a group of scientists in recent years, are so ambitious that it is uncertain whether delegates will return for Christmas in unison. .
One of the goals is to protect thirty percent of the planet. The idea originated with the American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who in 2016 in his book Half land advocated protecting half of nature. He calculated that 85 percent of biodiversity could be secured in this way, then people and nature would live together in harmony – the slogan and the vision ‘Living in harmony with nature’ in Montreal is a derivative of this. According to the draft proposal, global biodiversity must be valued, conserved and restored by 2050.
But the capitalist system is unruly. World leaders and political decision-makers prefer to point to economic growth, even if nature has to make room for it. To convince them that nature can represent a value, science went along with their capitalist thinking at the end of the last century. Since then, the value of an ecosystem has regularly been expressed in terms of money. Nature got a price tag, the politicians understood it, but did so little about it.
A good example takes place below the water surface in another country in our kingdom: Half of all coral reefs in the Caribbean have been lost due to a combination of climate change, overfishing, mass tourism and pollution. If nothing changes, another 60 percent of the remaining reefs will disappear over the next 30 years. It is a trend that can be observed all over the world. The general scientific consensus is that virtually all reefs will be in trouble this century, ultimately leading to a halving of marine biodiversity.
The consequences of loss of biodiversity will initially be difficult to see
The loss of these coral reefs is not only undesirable from an environmental point of view, the economic impact is also catastrophic. Coral reefs fulfill all kinds of functions, which are called ecosystem services. For example, reefs attract tourists, are a source of food, reduce erosion, contain important ingredients for medicines against all forms of cancer, and fulfill dozens of other functions. In Curaçao, the economic value of all these functions was estimated in 2017 at around 420 million euros per year, one seventh of GDP. In the Global South, people, like the inhabitants of Curaçao, are very dependent on coral. At least 424 million people worldwide would be in trouble if the reefs disappear. It is therefore crucial for us, but especially for them, that biodiversity does not decline further.
By putting a price tag on nature, you are hacking the capitalist system in which these ecosystems try to survive. But precisely because of this money-heavy view of nature, this way of thinking also faces criticism. Suppose the government of Curaçao is considering building a new port, then the choice is quickly made: A port provides more than a reef, so that port will be there. Nature’s intrinsic value cannot possibly be expressed in dollar bills, including this one loophole runs into its limitations. And perhaps most importantly, the breakthrough of ecosystem services on a global scale has hardly contributed to an end to the biodiversity crisis.
Saves biodiversity means preserving nature as it is now by protecting and conserving species. But we’re not there yet. Nature conservation is characterized by a degree of zooization: in Artis, biodiversity is high, but only a few animals of each species live – genetic diversity is low, making species more vulnerable to climate change, for example. Today, countries are increasingly establishing protected areas in places where a few animals of a species remain, often to honor agreements made during past biodiversity peaks and prevent a species from becoming extinct. In fact, it is often already too late. If world leaders want to prevent the last butterflies from being found in a zoo, the Montreal summit is the last moment to do something about it.
Even if the 196 participating countries reach a genuine biodiversity agreement in Montreal next week, it remains uncertain whether world leaders will actually put their money where their mouth is. Recent decades have taught us that since the Biodiversity Convention in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the appreciation, protection and restoration of nature has never really taken off. There were three main goals at the time, which are largely the same as the draft goals of this Montreal summit, and to make it even more depressing: 12 years ago, at an earlier edition of the summit in Japan, the countries agreed about 20. goals to combat the loss of wild animals, to go, but none of them were reached.
Now, thirty years after the first Rio de Janeiro treaty, the focus is again on old goals, on balance between people and nature. But the difference is that the goals must become more concrete and measurable than before, among other things by using the economic valuations of nature and probably by creating some kind of biodiversity dashboard that must be updated every four years. Countries apparently have to tinker before they really want to appreciate the value of nature.
All the hurdles at this summit seem to be a bit higher at the end of the year, after a somewhat disappointing climate summit last month. The countries will reach an agreement, even without their world leaders – no one wants to go down in the history books as the last generation that didn’t make a difference. But even if we assign a monetary value to ecosystems or stick a proverbial thermometer into nature every few years, the consequences of biodiversity loss will be hard to see.
The majority will only notice that all the coral reefs are gone when the consequences become visible, when almost half a billion people are in acute famine. People will leave, flee, to places where a few animals in a zoo languish, as birds stay away when the butterflies have disappeared from the garden forever. Then you might think back to the last time you saw a butterfly.