Mindset change needed to fight biodiversity loss

Posted on: 06 February 2024

If our loved ones were at risk of collapse, we’d do anything to help them recover. We need to do the same for the planet, writes Prof. Jane Stout in The Irish Times

Mindset change needed to fight biodiversity loss

The launch of the government’s fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan marks a significant turning point in Ireland’s approach to biodiversity loss. For the first time, the plan is not simply aspirational, but statutory, mandating action and accountability at the highest levels. This signals a realignment of biodiversity loss to a status comparable to climate change, which has undoubtedly dominated public and private discourse in recent years.

Increased focus on biodiversity is appropriate, given the Dáil’s declared emergencies on both climate and biodiversity back in 2019, but business as usual, and even “green business”, has largely ignored loss of the variety of life so far. And this carries significant risk.

The World Economic Forum’s Global latest Risks Report unambiguously lists biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse among the top three economic risks over the next decade. This is a clear warning that the well-being of future generations rests on the way we respond to the biodiversity crisis in the next few years.

Recognising this urgency, participants in the 2021 Children and Young People’s Assembly on Biodiversity loss, recommended that we start treating the earth like a friend or family member. This analogy captures the need for humanity to care more about our planetary home – as Dr Andy Bleasdale from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said at the launch – “we need more love, more positivity and more action” when it comes to nature.

If our loved ones are in ill-health, at risk of collapse, we’d do everything in our power to help them recover. We need to do the same for the rest of life on earth.

Because the situation is dire. Ireland’s biodiversity mirrors global trends, with the majority of habitats on land, in rivers and oceans, negatively influenced by human activity, half of animal species in decline, and worrying extinction rates across all types of life on earth. As Dr Deirdre Lynn (NPWS) said at the launch, “millions of years of evolution are at stake”.

The question now is whether the Plan's 190+ actions can genuinely halt and reverse biodiversity loss and nature's recovery in Ireland. The new Plan has a lot of positives – more agencies involved, better governance, more actions, and more resources to combat biodiversity loss and restoration. Particularly welcome is the proposal for a Children and Young People’s Biodiversity Forum, increased commitment to, and enforcement of, existing nature regulations, and recognition of the important role businesses can and are starting to play in tackling biodiversity loss.

Whilst the plan’s whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is commendable, there are some shortcomings. For example, there is no roadmap for delivery, and no timelines associated with many of the actions. There are many actions in there that are similar to those in previous plans, which weren’t acted upon.

There is no explicit commitment to updating the national landcover map, nor mention of a regularly updated national ecosystem map, which is essential for ecosystem accounting that will be delivered at national scale, and that is increasingly of interest to organisations operating at smaller scales. Nor is there a proposal for a national land use plan, despite the need to address increasing and conflicting land use demands from agriculture, forestry, renewable energy and nature restoration. In the realm of planning, the commitment to ensuring no net biodiversity loss, while significant, falls short of the international best practice of mandating biodiversity net gain.

Nonetheless, the Plan’s comprehensive approach emphasises that restoring nature is a necessity, not a luxury. Biodiversity loss threatens our food systems, reduces our ability to cope with climate change, and risks economic stability, and public health. Only through a coordinated, collaborative effort, breaking down traditional silos and prioritising this issue, can we halt and reverse this trend and restore ecosystem health. There needs to be proper integration of action from locally-based staff from all agencies, local authorities and resident communities. This takes time, and does the plan go far enough to mobilise these bodies to work effectively together?

The real test for the National Biodiversity Action Plan lies in its implementation. Until we treat earth like a friend and family member it is not going to recover, and if ecosystems collapse, so do our livelihoods, economies and societies. Let’s hope this Biodiversity Action Plan is, as promised by Minister Noonan in his speech at the launch, an Impact plan – with a positive impact for nature and people.

In essence, this Plan needs to be more than a document to be reported on; it is crucial for Ireland’s future relationship with nature.

Its success depends on how effectively it is enacted and how earnestly all stakeholders – government, businesses, communities, and individuals – commit to its vision. Only then can we hope to see a thriving, biodiverse Ireland for generations to come.

Jane Stout is professor of ecology and vice-president for biodiversity and climate action at Trinity College Dublin

This  piece was first published in The Irish Times.

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Jane Stout, Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action