The Importance of Biodiversity for the Future of Life

Video - Vera Lúcia Imperatriz-Fonseca

It is significant that the Intercontinental Academia commenced in 2015 and tackled “time” as its central theme, because this is surely a critical year when humanity must make urgent decisions about its future.

On three occasions this year, world leaders will decide about forthcoming decades. In July, the heads of state will gather to discuss how to finance development. In September, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted. In December, UN member countries will negotiate the new Global Climate Agreement.

To discuss difficulties imposed upon life on our planet in the recent past, global transformations and the prospects for biodiversity in the coming decades, the Intercontinental Academia invited biologist Vera Lúcia Imperatriz-Fonseca, from the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo and coordinator of Ecosystems Services research group of the Institute for Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo - IEA-USP.

On April 25, Vera Lucia gave the conference Biodiversity and Global Policies, in which she addressed the impact of human actions on the environment, highlighting the growing loss of biodiversity and the negotiations that could lead to the protection of ecosystems and to mitigating the effects of climate change on them.

Vera Lúcia adheres to the proposal that classifies our planet’s history from the onset of the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century, as a new epoch, the Anthropocene, which follows the Holocene that began 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last glaciation. The intense, human-induced transformations of the environment would be the defining feature of the Anthropocene.

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Vera Lúcia also stated that several important indicators related to global change began to grow exponentially in the mid-20th century, including total world population, use of previously virgin land, world Gross Domestic Product (GDP), river drainage, fertilizer consumption, water use, paper consumption, international tourism, use of motor vehicles and urban population. One consequence of this situation is that an enormous portion of the Earth’s surface is now occupied by urban areas, agriculture and livestock.

According to her, we should take notice of the huge amounts of carbon emissions that are “transferred” from country to country by the international trade of goods. The same applies to the use of water in the production of industrial and agricultural goods. She said that, in these terms, China is a major importer of water, “although it is also adopting various measures to restore the environment for future generations.”

She said that in 1700 the world population was 650 million and that less than 2% of terrestrial ecosystems had been altered, whereas the forecast for 2025 is that population will reach 8.2 billion and that more than half of the ecosystems will have undergone change.

Vera Lúcia reported that awareness of the environmental and sustainability issues has grown since the 1972 Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development and subsequent forums on biodiversity and climate negotiation, such as Rio 92, Rio +20 and others.

She also mentioned the hurdles we face to adopt international policies for the benefit of the environment, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) initiative.

In 2000, the then-U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, asked 1,360 experts to expound the importance of preserving nature. This survey resulted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which assessed the consequences for human well-being of changes in ecosystems, as well as the scientific bases for actions needed to improve ecosystem conservation and sustainability.

However, Vera Lucia stated, when the effort was presented to UN member states, they did not embrace it, because they deemed it was an initiative of the UN Secretariat and not something negotiated and approved by the signatory countries of the organization.

According to Vera Lucia, after governments rejected the MA, a group of countries, with the active participation of then-French president Jacques Chirac, began to wonder if there might be new possibilities for dealing with biodiversity and they “eventually organized a panel similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

“Chirac believed that much was already known about climate change, and that similar work had to be carried out with regard to biodiversity.”

In the UK, there was talk of a “perfect storm,” characterized by population growth, sprawling urbanization and climate change, comingled with the goals of poverty reduction, namely, the need to provide more food, more water and more energy to those in need.

Talk with Vera Lucia Imperatriz - April 25, 2015The proposal asked several questions, including whether 9 billion people can be fed equitably, sustainably and healthily, how to deal with the future demand for water, how to provide sufficient energy, how to mitigate the effects of climate change – and if all this can be done while preserving biodiversity at an acceptable level.

“Preservation is essential because biodiversity takes a long time to come about; furthermore, the morphology, anatomy and appearance of animals are very important aspects of genetic biodiversity – and we will need them if we hope to face the manifold upcoming transformations, especially those resulting from climate change. Molecular tools provide examples of how to identify populations, and how to assess if they are suited for thermal regulation or have the ability to live in harsh environmental conditions.”

Vera Lúcia recalled that the UN will adopt a new agenda in September, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), developed by researchers. “In this new paradigm, we have the economy at the center, the society around it and the system supports life on Earth surrounding both.”

This unified panorama comprises a set of six goals derived from combining the Millennium Development Goals with the conditions necessary to ensure the stability of the Earth’s systems.

The six goals are: better living conditions and livelihoods, sustainable food security, sustainable water security, universal clean energy, productive and healthy ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies.

In the final part of the conference, Vera Lúcia spoke of a project in which she is directly involved, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (EPBES), launched in April 2012. The platform was created by the international community as an independent intergovernmental body open to all UN members.

The initiative aims to provide politically relevant knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem services to support decision-making, and currently includes 124 member countries, as well as several United Nations partner agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Environment Program (UNEP) and the Development Program (UNDP).