Blog 08.03.19

How to avoid another Great Dying

Be my prince

Does it matter if the rhino goes extinct?  Or if the common Blue Morpho butterfly of Brazil ceases to flap its remarkable four-inch wings? Or if there are no longer frogs in the garden?

Surely, we’ll continue to eat our beloved burgers, honey-nut granola and vegan sausage rolls with abandon?  After all, what did the Dodo ever do for us? 

Expect a lot more of these questions among the chattering classes and in the more enlightened business boardrooms in the next 18 months. Nature – and the importance of biodiversity to the health of business – is set to ascend the global agenda. This is because concerned groups – environmental and business – are gearing up to raise awareness of the important deliberations about the future of the UN’s Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), in Beijing in 2020.


CBD is the runt of the litter of three conventions[1] that emerged from the Rio conference in 1992. Its profile has been overshadowed by its more glamorous sibling, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), and the continued refusal of the USA to ratify the CBD – the only major country not to ratify.  

The goals of CBD are threefold: conserve biodiversity, use nature sustainably, and share the benefits from exploiting genetic resources equitably. These objectives are implemented through two supplementary agreements: the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (controls the movement from one country to another of living modified organisms – LMOs); and the Nagoya Protocol, which attempts to ensure the equitable sharing of the benefits that come from exploiting genetic resources. 

These legal agreements have direct impact on several business sectors, from biotech and pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, horticulture and agriculture.  For example, you may no longer legally take a medicinal plant from the Brazilian jungle and exploit its molecules without sharing the benefits with Brazil and the indigenous peoples who may have discovered the benefits of the plant.

Great Dying

While the CBD’s legal mechanisms are important, the convention appears to have done little to slow the alarming decline in biodiversity.  Or what gloom mongers are calling the Sixth Mass Extinction (following volcanoes, meteorites, ice, clashing continents etc). Rather than geological or planetary disruptions, this extinction is brought on by us humans. We and our farmed animals now consume up to 40% of the plants that capture and transform the sun’s energy (the planet’s primary production) – on which biodiversity depends. 

Prepare your inbox for many more frightening reports about how we are heading – at greater or lesser speed – towards the modern version of the Great Dying experienced 252 million years ago when the world lost 95% of its biodiversity[2].

The expected reports, now being written by UN bodies and conservation groups, will be similar in content to the story last month in the journal Biological Conservation that claimed 40% of insect species are in decline and 33% are endangered. Insects could vanish within the century if we continue the great spraying of pesticides and insecticides.    

This is sobering news, given that many animals – from birds to fish – live largely on insects, many of which are also important pollinators. Prepare to be further sobered as forthcoming reports argue that we are nearing the End of Nature.

What can business do?

If you’re not in sectors that depend directly on nature – food, agriculture, soft commodities – it is difficult to make the connection to wild things. What has nature got to do with an artificial intelligence start-up, or a finance firm, or an accountancy practice? 

Given that most people do not know what an ecosystem service is (and why should they?), it’s hard to get coders and financial wizards to worry about the decline in crickets and butterflies; or to make the link to the air they breathe or the liquid in their breakfast ryegrass shot.

But it is essential that these connections are made and our dependence on nature is widely understood. Only with this awareness can we begin to get government and business to do their bit in reversing the decline of nature through protective policies and behaviour change.

[1] The third is the Convention to Combat Desertification

[2] Probably caused by acid rain from gases emitted by volcanoes

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