British Library TalkScience: Biodiversity

Here’s a little something I wrote for the British Library about a TalkScience event. It can be found at their Science @ British Library facebook page (sorry hyperlink isn’t working but you can find the page by googling Science @ British Library facebook).

TalkScience: Biodiversity

On Tuesday 9th November, I ventured to the British Library after hours, to attend the TalkScience Biodiversity event. I was rather excited about this, and not just because of my inner, not very secret, science geek; I was interested to see the discussion on biodiversity after the global failure to reach the 2010 Convention on Biodiversity targets.

As the room filled, and people settled down with a well-deserved post work drink, I admired the beautiful pictures from the Royal Society of Biology photographic competition displayed on the screens.

The science team at the British Library had organised for Professor Georgina Mace to kick off the evening. The list of Professor Mace’s achievements and honours is phenomenal; it promised to be a great introductory lecture, and she didn’t disappoint. There’s something very special for a member of the audience when a speaker confesses that it’s a great honour for them to be invited to speak somewhere; it makes me feel like I’m sharing a very special experience with them. So, from the moment Professor Mace expressed her delight at being asked by the British Library to talk, I was hooked.

Professor Mace’s talk introduced some ideas and facts which gave everyone something to really think about. It is 18 years since the Rio Earth Summit where the Convention on Biodiversity, more commonly known as the CBD, was drawn up. However it wasn’t until 2002 that any targets were set for countries to achieve. And, according to the work Professor Mace did with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, these targets were never going to be met. In reality, they did not even get close.

To me, this is staggering. Biodiversity is the very cornerstone of life on earth; quite simply as one member of the audience said later in discussion, “Without it, we’re dead.” The overall aim of the 2010 target, to have been achieved by the Nagoya conference held last month, was “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss.” And, despite the majority of countries throughout the world pledging to meet these targets on signing up to the CBD, globally this target was not achieved.

Having watched some of the Nagoya conference online, Professor Mace thinks that there was a glimmer of hope… or possibly a sign of panic! There are many problems in laying down targets for biodiversity. One of the major ones is deciding on how it can be measured. What quantitative measures can there be, whether it be at the genetic level or at the level of an ecosystem? Recently people have begun to try and put a value on the land. But how does someone decide how much value does an area of land has? It may provide resources such as timber that could be sold but the trees may prevent flooding further down a valley, and therefore might have more value in protecting lives and livelihoods. It is a complicated process, but it something that The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study is trying to achieve in order to, among other things, “highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.”

A concept closely linked with that of value on the land is that of ecosystem services; these services such as genetic resources are closely linked with maintaining the world in which we live. Professor Mace explained that much greater emphasis is being put on the economic value of these ecosystem services, and this will affect the management and conservation of ecosystems. Importantly these ecosystem services, such as clean air and reduced natural disasters are available to everyone, whereas profit from selling resources only goes to a small proportion of the world’s population.

To conclude, Professor Mace gave some fascinating insight into the 2020 CBD targets. There are classed in different ways; blue for long term sustainability goals, green for conservation agenda goals, and red for goals which aim to avoid deleterious change. Even though there is only a decade before the targets need to be achieved, the majority of the targets are blue, long term goals. The question is, will we miss the targets again? I can’t speak for others in the room, but to me this is extremely worrying; are we ever going to make a big enough difference to stop the ever shrinking global biodiversity? And more importantly, do people care enough right now to make changes that will protect future generations from feeling the force of this loss?

During a short break, and a chance to refill out glasses, people had a chance to write down some questions that could be used to kick off the discussion. There were a large number of the audience keen to get involved and ask questions; and there were some interesting points to be made. The first question related to biodiversity within urban areas.  It was interesting to hear from a number of different people who opened my eyes to the possibility of increasing the diversity within small urban spaces and the potential of brown field sites. It seems that there is the expertise to make a change but the key lies in the willingness to do so.

A large focus of the discussion was on the politics behind biodiversity, perhaps fuelled by the facts brought up by Professor Mace. How are the targets set? How can science advice be used in biodiversity policy? Professor Mace stepped in to start the discussion on these; unfortunately it seems that rather than a well thought through process driven by what data is needed to support decision, it is driven by data availability. Professor Mace feels that meaningful data sets are essential to achieve meaningful and achievable targets. However, she also feels that the scientific community should not tell the policy makers what to do. Instead the experts must make enough knowledge available so that these policy makers can make properly informed decisions.

One particularly striking point that was made by a member of the audience was in relation to putting monetary value on the land. Is there another value we can put on the land, does money really drive all in a modern society? Something to think about perhaps? Or maybe just a comment on what society values today?

There were many other nuances to these discussions, and more questions asked, but here I have just picked a few to think about. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and really gave me pause for thought. It was a pleasure to sit in a room with a diverse range of people and have scientific discussion about a topic which affecting every single one of us there.

For more slides and pictures from the evening visit the Science @ British Library facebook page. You can also find more information about the British Library’s science events!

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