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.