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LUCSUS' research on biodiversity: comment on IPBES global assessment report


From despair to transformation: evidence-backed ways to think and act on the nature crisis.

Looking at the bigger picture

The UN Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has just published a global assessment of the state of nature, ecosystems and nature's contributions to people. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years,with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the global assessment tracks changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between the past and current economic development pathways and how these the impact the natural environment. The assessment also provides a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

The report very clearly highlights the "social and ecological emergency" humanity is now facing. For the first time at this scale and based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence the assessment’s authors have ranked,  the five direct drivers of environmental degradation  having the largest relative global impacts on biodiversity loss. These culprits are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use (e.g., deforestation for agriculture, mining); (2) direct exploitation of organisms (e.g., overfishing, unsustainable hunting); (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species. Moreover, the report argues that in order to better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes for biodiversity loss we also need to understand the indirect drivers found in the historical and complex interlinkages of  demographic and economic development. Key drivers include increased population;  rising consumption per capita; fast paced technological innovation with its positive and negative effects on the natural environment; and critical issues related to governance and accountability of policy-makers, governments and the private sector (IPBES 2019). The report emphasizes that only through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably. Recognizing this and implementing these transformative changes in political decisions and governance at global, national and local levels, and in economic management and individual behavior is crucial in order to achieve the other global sustainable development goals.

After the important messages the IPBES report has provided, LUCSUS researchers identified key areas of their research which are important for this transformative change.

What must be done?

Don’t address biodiversity loss and climate change in isolation.

Since the dawn of modern civilization, nature has been increasingly treated as something external, an entity distinct from us humans. The superiority of humanity was based on the capacity to overcome natural limits through ingenuity and the appropriation of resources from future generation to an extent that would alarm any financial accountant if it were a personal bank account.

There have been increasing attempts at reasserting the link  between us and how our very survival depends on nature, either through the notion of ecosystem services, or nature’s contribution to people. But for most part neither science, nor policies or the very way society relates to nature points to a shift in how we place ourselves within nature. For instance, instead of choosing to represent the SDG’s as a stacked model where the biosphere is the foundation from which the other social and economic SDGs derive, it is merely represented as two additional boxes. This very well underlines the idea of people, society and economy being independent from nature that the drives the current decline in biodiversity as observed in the latest IPBES report.

Political and scientific debates use particular problem narratives that tend to avoid complexity. One such example are the attempts to mitigate climate change through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) where the focus is merely on carbon, while the importance of forests as a social-ecological system is neglected. For instance, although biodiversity is often represented as co-beneficiary of climate mitigation efforts in REDD+, it is rarely treated as more than just a shallow concept. A LUCSUS study recently published shows how these forest based climate change mitigation policies do not treat forests as ecological systems and despite frequently mentioning the benefits of avoiding deforestation for biodiversity, or what biodiversity they imply, nor how they actually plan to safeguard biodiversity from human pressures, foremost hunting (Krause and Nielsen, 2019).

Connect SDGs with principles of protecting biodiversity and nature

The rapid decline in biodiversity, ecosystem functions and many of nature’s contributions to people means that  the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will not be achieved based on current trajectories. Report shows us that current focus and wording of targets in Sustainable Development Goals obscures or omits their relationship to nature, thereby preventing their assessment here. There is a critical need for future policy targets, indicators and datasets to more explicitly account for aspects of nature and their relevance to human well-being in order to more effectively track the consequences of trends in nature on Sustainable Development Goals. Some pathways chosen to achieve the goals related to energy, economic growth, industry and infrastructure and sustainable consumption and production (Sustainable Development Goals 7, 8, 9 and 12), as well as targets related to poverty, food security and cities (Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2 and 11), could have substantial negative impacts on nature and therefore on the achievement of other Sustainable Development Goals. LUCSUS researchers David Harnesk and Sara Brogaard (2018, 2019) analyzed North-South dynamics in the geographies of transport energy via the case of EU biofuels. Within a sustainability science frame, David Harnesk shows the importance of the interdependency of energy and geography.

Some of the work we do at LUCSUS focus on SDG7, energy access for all, in countries like Nepal, Turkey, Spain and Tanzania. We document the differentiated effects of the renewable energy implementation based on scale and societal structures (Islar et al., 2017; Harnesk and Brogaard, 2017). According to the data, small-scale, community owned and managed energy development seem to have less negative impact on water and soil quality whereas big scale renewable energy development led to land degradation, forest loss, decreased water quality.

Urban transformations call for integrated thinking and cross-sectoral approaches

As the IPBES report demonstrates, urban areas have more than doubled since 1992. With this development comes the concern of an “extinction of experience”, of a loss of direct human-nature interactions and an increased sense of disconnect from nature, which ultimately makes way for institutions to continue operating as if decoupled from the rest of nature. Direct experiences in nature is however irreplaceable to how some people define their sense of place, find meaning and build identity (Stålhammar & Pedersen, 2017). In the urban setting, works of Brink and Wamsler (2019) examine the external/material (e.g., resources, hazards, public support) and internal aspects (e.g., values and worldviews) that shape people's engagement in and for adaptation. In the urban areas, transformative change requires recognizing diversity and linkages between different sectoral areas. Cross-sectoral approaches, including landscape approaches, integrated watershed and coastal zone management and new urban ecosystem based planning paradigms are suggested by the IPBES report.

Ongoing LUCSUS research on urban green space management in the both in the Global North and  South also shows the importance of the increased need for the restoration of and access to urban green areas by low-income communities in order to create co-benefits of citizen building and promote nature-based solutions ( Beery et al. 2016; Wamsler et al. 2016). There is also a need to increasingly demonstrate ways that reflect people’s plural values in management and planning, and to recognize the inherent potential of nature to create value and to contribute to social transformation, rather than to convey static figures of ecosystem functions. The IPBES assessment provides fruitful ground for a shift in the narrative of thinking about ourselves as part of the rest of nature.

Elevate indigenous and local knowledge in solutions to the crises we face.

Western science for most part exacerbates this disconnect between nature, the environment, biodiversity and humans. In that context, the IPBES global assessment highlights the need to recognise local and indigenous knowledge as a key component for solutions to environmental degradation. LUCSUS researcher, Stephen Woroniecki (2019) shows the marginalisation of these other ways of knowing and relating to nature is in fact another side of the same problem as the climate-biodiversity crisis . In other words, across politics, society and even science we at present systematically prioritise the values and knowledge-bases of a small minority of the earth's living beings, leading to unprecedented levels of social and ecological inequality. The way we communicate such issues also matters. Focusing on quantitative estimates of loss and damage hides the deep seated social and cultural meanings that are lost. Each language, and species represents a different way of experiencing the world. Such plural ways of knowing the world are easily eclipsed by scientists and media focussing on the numbers.

LUCSUS researcher Torsten Krause’s recent project on defaunation shows the importance of local practices in the context of hunting in tropical forest areas. In his study, the local ecological knowledge is crucial to understand the social-ecological complexity of tropical forests, yet it is also at risk from disappearing together with the species and ecosystems. He analyzes how local communities’ hunting practices affect forest fauna but can also potentially contribute to a more sustainable use of a crucial material resource for local people who have relied on wildlife for food through centuries. Forests and the species of flora and fauna living in these are social-ecological systems to which many local and indigenous groups have a profoundly different relationship. Trees and animals are not just material resources, but also have an important spiritual and cultural meaning (Krause and Zambonino, 2013). Understanding and documenting the multiple ways of seeing forests is possible through respecting and studying the local ecological knowledge that these hunters possess, which is tremendous and sometimes dwarfs that of biologists or ecologists.

Also excluding the indigenous peoples’ perspectives often lead to resource conflicts in several parts of the world. David Harnesk and Mine Islar have studied the resource conflicts in Northern Sweden and show that most of these conflicts derived from the ways in which mining projects are implemented. At the expense of economic development, Sámi populations’ demands and rights are sidelined  (Harnesk et al., 2018).

Integrate nature-based solutions, decentralized approaches and local knowledge into decision making processes

Nature-based solutions can be part of transformations to more sustainable societies. But research suggests these must not be seen as quick fixes or interventions by outsiders’; a risk that increases through reference to the ‘solutions’ frame. Nature-based’ approaches suggest that nature can come to our rescue. But research demands that these approaches are given their cultural, social and political dues. Nature is never simply an ecosystem. People and nature have co-developed for tens of thousands of years. This must be recognised in the design of these solutions (Boyd, 2017). Otherwise these solutions can give undue authority to natural scientists and other external ‘technical experts’. This can marginalise the very people who know how to make such approaches function best (Woroniecki et al. 2019).

To confront this crisis our work contributes to emerging awareness that transformations are required at multiple sectors of society to confront the climate and Biodiversity crises, including approaches we assume are sustainable, ‘evidence-based’. Often ‘nature based solutions’, for instance, are said to be a vehicle for greater involvement of marginalised knowledge and voices. Recent work on nature based solutions in response to climate change in Sri Lanka shows that, across multiple sites and types of interventions, such social benefits are far from inevitable outcomes of using these ‘green solutions’. Instead they must be carefully incorporated across multiple scales of social organisation. Transformation to confront the crises will be more effective if diverse and marginalised stakeholders are recognised, and have a meaningful role in decision making. Citizens assemblies and other participatory forms of local governance are increasingly suggested as necessary components of an overhaul of how we can improve decision-making processes. Such downscaled governance forms do enable a redistribution of knowledge and priorities  (Islar and Irgil 2018). Citizens assemblies are likely to be transformative across multiple sectors if they are facilitated in ways that enable empowerment, and even resistance, by historically marginalised groups in the face of solutions that misrecognise their knowledge and values

Redefine well-being beyond economic growth and transform political and economic system.

Alternative models and measures of economic welfare (such as inclusive wealth accounting, natural capital accounting and degrowth models) are increasingly considered as possible approaches to balancing economic growth and conservation of nature and its contributions and recognizing trade-offs, value pluralism and long-term goals (IPBES 2019). Since environmental ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ are distributed unequally among society and marginalized, disadvantaged, and less powerful groups often bear the burden of environmental degradation and pollution, although they are the least responsible for it. The notion of climate justice pays specific attention to this unequal distribution of responsibilities for historic greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts and costs related to the current and anticipated effects of climate change. However, as the global IPBES assessment  shows, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation is also characterized by global injustice (Warlenius et al., 2015; Krause and Loft 2012). In fact, the majority of drivers that cause the decline in species we see is based on the consumption patterns of the world’s wealthy people, which includes the majority of the population living in industrial countries. Economic approaches to solving environmental problems are often portrayed as an effective and efficient solution, but ultimately they have to be critically studied and challenged because they are based on theoretical assumptions and ideas that are at the same time the drivers of environmental degradation.