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Ecological decline: an overlooked emergency?

A blue tit landing. Image credit: Adam Hearne, Student at the Univesity of Bristol.
 
The words ‘Ecological Emergency’ are appearing in an increasing number of environmental declarations, strategies and parliamentary bills. This blog will discuss the need to recognise ecological decline as an emergency in its own right, as well as being an element of the climate emergency. This will be part of an 'Ecological Emergency' Cabot Campaign which will run alongside the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), which is happening this week. 

Last year, The Cabot Institute for the Environment’s home city Bristol became the first major city to declare an ecological emergency. This declaration came only two years after Bristol became the first European city to declare a climate emergency. Many UK councils and organizations have since declared joint “Climate and Ecological” emergencies, and the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill has been put forward to replace the ‘outdated’ 2008 Climate Change Act. These declarations show that while climate and ecology are intrinsically linked, there is increasing recognition of ecological decline as an emergency in its own right as well as being a consequence of and contributor to the climate emergency. Climate mitigation is fundamental to safeguarding ecosystems, however, ecological decline could continue alongside decarbonisation and even be exacerbated by the means to get to net-zero, if the ecological emergency is overlooked in sustainability strategies and policy. 

 The UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15) is taking place this week and a Cabot Campaign on the ‘Ecological Emergency’ will run alongside it. The campaign will include a series of blogs and posts across our website and social media. Using statements from Cabot researchers in relevant fields, this blog will discuss the ecological emergency and the need for targeted action.

Bristol suspension bridge. Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

 What is the ecological emergency? 

 “Biodiversity is being lost on a scale not seen since the last mass extinctionDr Chris Clements Caboteer and leader of the experimental conservation group explains. While Dr Andrew Flack, an environmental and animal historian, described the ecological emergency as “among the most profound crises of our time, diminishing not only planetary diversity but also the very experience of being human on our beautiful, rich planet.” 

 More quantitively, the statistics which drove Bristol’s pioneering ‘Ecological Emergency’ declaration include: 
 • 60% of the worlds wild animals have been lost since 1970 
• One in seven UK wildlife species are at risk of extinction 
• More locally in Bristol and the surrounding areas, swift and starling populations have dropped by more than 96% since 1994 
• 41% of insects are threatened with extinction, posing a huge threat to our global food supply due to 75% of our crops being reliant on pollination by insects 
• Three-quarters of land and two-thirds of marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions 

A honey bee on a flower. Image credit: Callum Mclellan, Student at the University of Bristol.

In their statements, many of our academics highlighted that, as well as the beauty of the natural world and our responsibility to preserve it, our reliance on ecosystems makes their survival essential to our own. Ecosystems provide us with food, oxygen, nutrient cycling, carbon absorption, air and water purification, and protection from erosion, floods and droughts. Many of these services are already under increased pressure due to climate change, which ecological decline is intertwined with. Destruction of ecosystems and exploitation of wildlife can also cause the emergence of infectious disease, as has been demonstrated by the occurrence of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Biodiversity loss and climate action failure both earned their own place in the top five threats to humanity in the next five years, according to the 2020 Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum. Though these interdependent crises will drastically affect everyone, their consequences will not be felt equally among communities and are sadly already intensifying inequality and poverty. 

Intertwined emergencies

 “The climate emergency is certainly exacerbating the ecological emergencyProfessor Jane Memmott, a leading restoration ecologist, explained. Under current trends, climate change is projected to drive many ecosystems to collapse. Simultaneously, large-scale destruction of ecological carbon sinks, such as forests, wetlands and mangroves, is contributing to climate change. There are several feedback loops at play: destruction of carbon sinks is increasing atmospheric CO2, which drives climate change and in turn further ecological degradation, which then further debilitates natures ability to store carbon. This forms a vicious cycle, with profound consequences for the planet. 

 The interdependent emergencies share similar causes, consequences and solutions, however, Dr Tommaso Jucker, whose research is on forests and their responses to rapid global change, explains “it is not only climate change that threatens biodiversity, and the effects of biodiversity loss on people will not just be a subset of those brought on by climate change”. As well as climate change, threats to ecosystems include species over-exploitation, habitat destruction, pesticides and pollution of land, air and water. These could all continue simultaneously to our efforts to decarbonise, and even be exacerbated by the means to get to net-zero, if the ecological emergency is overlooked in sustainability strategies. 

A forest. Image credit: Dr. Stephen Montgomery, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol

 A coordinated approach to climate and ecology 

 The climate emergency is becoming mainstream conversation and it is now widely accepted that huge changes in policy, infrastructure and behaviour are needed. However, while the climate emergency is gaining recognition, the ecological emergency is comparatively overlooked. If we are to avoid ecological collapse, a co-ordinated approach to the crises is essential; focusing purely on technological advancement and decarbonisation runs the risk of allowing and even exacerbating further ecosystem destruction. 

Natural climate solutions, such as strategic management of forests, grasslands and wetlands, can offer around a third of the climate mitigation required by 2030 to keep warming below 2 C. These environments are not only carbon sinks, but biodiversity havens, making them effective solutions for ecological decline as well as climate change. Protecting ecosystems is also often significantly more cost-effective than human-made climate interventions. However, due to our often unnatural lifestyles and a fast-growing population, nature alone will not be enough to mitigate human impact on the environment. 

A peacock butterfly. Image credit: Sam J. England, PhD Student at the University of Bristol.

 The need for targeted action 

 As well as the intrinsic links and coordinated solutions to the climate and ecological emergencies, there is a lot that can be done to specifically alleviate the ecological emergency. This is exemplified by Bristol’s ‘One City Ecological Emergency Strategy' which predominantly focuses on land management, pesticide use, water quality and consumption of products that undermine global ecosystems. This is in addition to climate mitigation, already covered in the Climate Emergency Action Plan.

Last year’s UN Summit for Biological Diversity saw leaders from all regions of the world take the ‘Leader’s Pledge for Nature’, which commits to reversing alarming global biodiversity loss trends by 2030. To achieve this ambitious but necessary goal, both climate action and targeted conservation and restoration strategies will be needed on both a local and global level. For these crises to be mitigated, some uncomfortable truths surrounding lifestyles many have become accustomed to will have to be faced. 

The word ‘emergency’ from a scientific perspective 

 Despite widespread agreement on the obvious threats posed by biodiversity loss and the need for action, the word ‘emergency’ can be controversial, especially amongst the scientific community. Professor Richard Wall explained “As a research scientist, my view is that the sound-bite ‘ecological emergency’ is not sufficiently nuanced to be useful in scientific discourse and is best left to journalists and campaigners; it has no scale or quantification and what constitutes an ‘emergency’ is highly subjective.”

Public awareness surrounding our changing climate and declining ecosystems are important, however, if action doesn’t follow declarations, then they run the risk of being no more than empty PR stunt and can increase public immunity to the word as well as the impacts of the crisis itself. COP15, which is happening this week, will be pivotal in deciding the future of our own species, as well as all the other species that share our planet. 


This blog was written by Hilary McCarthy, a University of Bristol PhD Student and part of the Cabot Communicators group.

Thank you to University of Bristol students and staff for wildlife photography submissions used in this blog and across the campaign: 
Adam Hearne (UoB student and wildlife photographer, www.adamhearnewildlife.co.uk, Instagram: @adamhearnewildlife) 
Meg Barstow (UoB student, wildlife photographer, Instagram: @cardboard.rocket) Dr Stephen Montgomery (Senior Research Fellow, Neurobiology and Behaviour, School of Biological Sciences) 
Sam J. England (PhD student researching aerial electroreception in insects and wildlife photographer, Instagram @sam.j.england, https://www.samjengland.com)

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