The recent regional IPBES assessment reports on biodiversity and ecosystems services as well as Canada‘s Climate Change report describe again what we have already known for decades. We humans are wasting our natural capital and thereby are threatening the foundations of our existence.
Already in the eighties when studying forestry at the University of Munich, loss of biodiversity and climate change were the two major environmental topics the professors were discussing with us, students. What we were taught then was that nature, and biodiversity, in particular, had no market value, at least none recognised in the official statistics for the calculation of the Gross Domestic Product. As economy steers everything both behaviour of individuals and that of the private and public sector, the professors had little hope that things would change for the better, unless if by some miracle, nature, biodiversity or climate protection would get a market value. Somehow, it was not considered feasible or realistic that there would be enough political will, or societal will, to use the other steering mechanism of our Western societies, the law.
Many economists have been advocating for the development of a green national product or for genuine progress indicators that would also take into account the natural capital. However, none of the OECD countries adopted any green national product measurement. Bhutan is to my knowledge the only country using an indicator that comes close, the General Happiness Indicator (GNH), which includes ecological diversity and resilience as one of the 9 main criteria. This GNH indicator has been a source of inspiration for cities, provinces and regions, also in Canada and the USA.
Looking at both reports and what they mean for Canada, there are a couple of interesting or may be disturbing observations.
Canada with a total land area of more than 9 million km² and a little more than 37 million inhabitants has an average population density of around 4 people per km², a density so low that in Europe you would need to go to the most remote areas (for example Lapland in Northern Sweden) to find equally low or lower population densities. Yet, in terms of climate, the changes Canada will suffer are more important than the global average (“both past and future warming in Canada is on average, about double the magnitude of global warming,…”). This is because of Canada’s geographic location and corresponds to the effects of global warming for areas of similar latitude in Europe. This is a perfect illustration of the fact that climate change does not know borders and can only be tackled by global collaboration.
While the IPBES report points at the enormous biological richness in the Americas and the existence in Canada of one of the world’s largest wilderness areas (the northeastern Pacific coast) it also describes that on average biodiversity decreases and the survival of many species is threatened.
According to the Global Biodiversity Convention, “there is ample evidence that climate change affects biodiversity”. However, “biodiversity can support efforts to reduce the negative effects of climate change. Conserved or restored habitats can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus helping to address climate change by storing carbon (for example, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Moreover, conserving intact ecosystems can help reduce the disastrous impacts of climate change such as flooding and storm surges.”
It is encouraging to see that the IPBES report mentions areas in the Americas where protection and restoration measures have increased biodiversity. Also, the “cultural diversity of indigenous peoples and local communities in the Americas provid[ing] a plethora of knowledge and world views for managing biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people » has been highlighted.
I wonder whether there is a reason for the cautious optimism. Whereas my professors were pessimistic as no one else than their students seemed to care, today, the general public is much better informed, many people do care, and the green parties had a thundering success in the European elections of May this year. Inspired by Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg), students around the world are demonstrating and asking us adults to finally act on what we know about climate change.
Has the time come to listen to scientists, indigenous people, green economists, and to our children?