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Two crises, one solution: Biodiversity is critical for humanity and our planet

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area & Crater in Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area & Crater in Tanzania. Photo Credit: Marian Siljeholm/USAID Tuhifadhi Maliasili

Attention to climate change has grown rapidly in the past decade, and rightfully so. But there is little awareness around the looming catastrophe of biodiversity loss – in other words, the loss of our planet’s rich variety of species and ecosystems. If we don’t slow climate change, civilization as we know it will change forever; but if we don’t slow biodiversity loss, humanity will go extinct. 

Climate change and biodiversity loss have traditionally been treated as separate issues, but some scientists are now referring to them as twin crises in recognition of the fact that in addressing one, we must also address the other. In an increasingly interconnected world, identifying win-win solutions for climate change and biodiversity loss is not only critical but possible as well. 

The world needs to take biodiversity loss seriously if we are to ensure the continuation of the human species while also saving our planet. 

Interconnected crisis: Human impact on biodiversity, land, and climate

Human use of land and sea is the top driver of biodiversity loss as well as one of the top drivers of greenhouse gas production. One example of land use change—deforestation—reduces habitats for flora and fauna in addition to reducing nature’s ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere. 

At the same time, climate change is the third biggest driver of biodiversity loss (with the second biggest driver being overexploitation). Climate change-induced droughts are drying up water holes, leading to animal deaths. Rising global temperatures are forcing many animals and plants—like Arabica coffee—to move to higher elevations and latitudes. When they run out of suitable habitat or can’t adapt, these plants and animals go extinct. Land use change that causes habitat loss also puts humans in closer proximity with animals, leading to human-wildlife conflict or death as well as increasing the risk of zoonotic spillovers such as COVID-19

Pollinators like bees, butterflies, and bats are a prime example of how interconnected humanity is with biodiversity – and how at risk we are if we lose it. In addition to habitat loss, the use of environmental contaminants like pesticides have contributed to pollinator decline. We now have half as many bumblebees in North America as we did 50 years ago. By some estimates, 500,000 people each year are dying prematurely as pollinator loss reduces the global supply of healthy foods. 

These falling numbers should worry those who care about climate change. Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollinators. These same plants help the planet remove carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, many of the world’s habitats that are important to biodiversity are so important to absorbing greenhouse gasses that the United Nations has called biodiversity “our strongest natural defense against climate change.” 

Interconnected solutions: Nature-positive and nature-based solutions for biodiversity and climate 

Nature positive and nature-based solutions are two concepts that have arisen as a way of framing activities that can conserve, manage, and restore biodiversity while creating co-benefits like climate mitigation and resilience to climate shocks. 

The United Nations’ Biodiversity Conference (the other COP, so to speak) has championed nature positive through a framework that sets global targets for conserving biodiversity, restoring ecosystems, and protecting indigenous rights. Nature positive is quickly becoming a twin goal to net zero in recognition of how interconnected these two aims are. 

Nature-based solutions can help us achieve nature positive and net zero outcomes. In Uganda, for example, RTI implements a USAID program to help communities near forests make income from planting and protecting trees, to ensure forests have time to replenish themselves. Forest restoration is one of the most powerful nature-based solutions for mitigating climate change as forests absorb nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Forests are also home to 80 percent of land-based biodiversity.

Harnessing science and technology will help us address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change too. By mapping carbon sinks like oceans and peatlands, we can more effectively advocate for governments and the public to prioritize their conservation. Scientific models like EcoShift leverage machine learning to evaluate potential land conversion and its impact, providing actionable insights for policymakers and communities. We can also use science to expand the evidence base of what works best when it comes to nature-based solutions that provide co-benefits for biodiversity and the climate, like identifying key research areas for protecting marine ecosystems and the communities that rely on them for a living. 

Indigenous and local solutions have traditionally been undervalued in terms of their potential to conserve biodiversity and promote climate resilience. In many ways, they represent a return to pre-industrial methods for living and working in harmony with nature – allowing nature to replenish itself. Many of these solutions are non-invasive, relatively easy, and low-cost ways of adapting and conserving resources that, if implemented today, could last for a lifetime or longer. The amunas in Peru are a great example: These pre-Incan, wall-like structures help guide overflow water during the rainy season from mountain streams toward the water tables below to replenish them. Peru is restoring these ancient water channels to help address its water shortages, which are getting worse because of climate change. We’ve also found through RTI’s work that local knowledge and leadership lead to sustainable conservation solutions and impact.

Setting targets and holding nations accountable to achieving them is also critical to conserve biodiversity and slow climate change. The biodiversity COP framework mentioned previously is one way of doing so, as it set targets for nature positive. The challenge now is to develop methods for measuring progress and holding nations accountable. Solutions require not only political will and accountability but financing as well. Climate finance, like the United Nations’ new climate loss and damage fund, could help communities implement nature-based solutions that address climate change while also restoring biodiversity. 

Securing our future through conservation

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen inspiring comebacks of “charismatic megafauna” like tigers and giant pandas. This biodiversity conservation has captured hearts and minds with photos and stories of these iconic animals and shown what’s possible when the public, government officials, and others prioritize conservation. 

Yet beneath the cute photos and heart-warming stories is the issue of the very survival of the human species – our destinies are inextricably linked with that of biodiversity. When we save wildlife and the habitats they rely on, we’re saving the same ecosystems that support human life and slow climate change. 

As climate change threatens human, wildlife, and plant species, we need to do a better job of connecting biodiversity loss and related solutions to climate action. Win-win solutions, like nature-based solutions, can address both at once, turning these twin crises into twin opportunities for human and planetary survival. 

Learn more about RTI’s work on nature-based solutions.

Learn more about RTI’s Center for Climate Solutions.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jennifer Park (Associate Director, Environment) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.