Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 13:12 UK

Biodiversity is the spark of life

Barry Gardiner
Barry Gardiner

Biodiversity is not getting the attention it deserves on the international agenda, says Barry Gardiner. In this week’s Green Room, he warns that we need to understand the true value of ecological services before it is too late.

Polar bear cubs (Image: AP)
Well-intentioned campaigning organisations have fed us with sentimental descriptions of the polar bear, giant panda and blue whale

For the past 16 months I have put off upgrading my mobile phone because two years ago a little girl was stung by a jellyfish on a beach in south-west England.

Let me elaborate: it is demand for the latest mobile phones that has made the metal coltan so valuable, leading to conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That conflict has caused deforestation, which has seen a decline in the number of forest mammals.

As a result, more people demand more fish as an alternative protein, leading to overfishing of species higher up the food chain.

Fishermen, in turn, have shifted their focus to species further down the food chain, reducing their population. This has allowed jellyfish become the lower reaches of the food chain.

Hence, a possible reason why large blooms of jellyfish were invading the south coast of England.

Web of life

Every form of life on this planet stands not on its own but is supported by, and supports, other living things.

Jellyfish (Image: BBC)

Jellyfish blooms could be a sign that all is not well beneath the waves

Lose one species and you lose a vital part of some ecosystem.

That means you lose not just a plant or an insect but a service: you lose the medicine that comes from that plant; you lose the pollination of crops which that insect provides.

Climate change matters, not because the world mustn’t get any hotter, but because the rate of change is too fast for species to keep pace.

As species die, so biodiversity is depleted and with it the ecosystem services that such biodiversity provides.

How ridiculous then that over the last three months, climate change has had 1,382 mentions in British national newspapers.

Yet, during the same period, biodiversity was mentioned just 115 times.

‘Side show’

We have ignored the circus and focused on the side show.

Sir Nicholas Stern (Image: AP)
Arguments for biodiversity have proven to be much less compelling for business leaders than Nicholas Stern’s reports

Perhaps the reason why biodiversity has been ignored while climate change has been taken progressively more seriously is that the case for biodiversity has often been couched in emotional terms.

Well-intentioned campaigning organisations have fed us with sentimental descriptions of the polar bear, giant panda and blue whale.

However, these arguments for biodiversity have proven to be much less compelling for business leaders than Nicholas Stern’s report that climate change could cost us between 5% and 20% of global GDP by the end of the century.

Yet, the head of Deutsche Bank’s Global Markets predicts that our current rate of biodiversity loss could see 6% of global GDP wiped out as early as 2050.

Climate change does not just lead to biodiversity loss; causality works the other way around too.

It is the loss of forest that is causing climate change. It would be comforting to think that we can control this process, which is linear and predictable.

It is not. In nature, disruptions to the equilibrium led to turbo-charged changes.

Yet nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection.

Economists call these externalities: things which we can take for granted and need not be ascribed a value. The economists are wrong. Unless we begin to value this natural capital in exactly the same way we value human or social capital, we will not begin to tackle the problem.

Isn’t it ironic that the UK has a treasury department that spends most of its time talking about over-leveraging in the financial system and credit bubbles, but cannot see the connection with a world that every year consumes resources that it takes the planet one year and four months to renew or replace?

The problems is that biodiversity is still left as the responsibility of environment ministers, who are usually relatively junior.

They do not have the clout to make changes across government policy.

Biodiversity should be, as climate change is beginning to be, a heads of governments’ issue.

Just as climate change has moved out of its environment cul-de-sac into mainstream government thinking to influence decisions on everything from transport to development and energy policies, so biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide need to be considered in every government decision.

The issue lacks a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide scientific assessments and advice to governments and the public.

Most important of all, we need a global agreement with teeth to protect biodiversity that captures the imagination like Kyoto.

Otherwise, the hordes of jellyfish will be the least of our problems.

Barry Gardiner is the Labour MP for Brent North, and co-chairman of the Global Legislators Organisation (Globe) Land Use Change & Ecosystems Dialogue

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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Do you agree with Barry Gardiner? Are governments overlooking the importance of biodiversity? Do we need to make sure that ecological services are valued properly within our economies? Or is biodiversity just one of many issues that is clamouring for attention?

Mr Gardiner is right, we humans, supposed to be the most intelligent, are acting ignorant on the issue of biodiversity. If we protect biodiversity and the environment then the climate change will control itself. The root cause of the climate change is the depletion of the biodiversity itself.
Ashish Parajuli, Kathmandu, Nepal

Nice article. Environmental debate is always focused on global warming. When the arguably more important and compelling issues of reducing resource usage and decreases in biodiversity are a side line. What we need to focus on is using less resources and preserving as much habit, and thus biodiversity, as possible. We need to combat these things for there own sake. Climate change would then be sorted out as a bi-product. We are caretakers of the ONLY place in the universe that we know supports life, lets try and do a good job.
Chris, Bristol

I’m think so, The Government would be supported everything for conservation biological diversity.
Dr Kamolchai Kotcha, tHAILAND

Thoughtful and thought-provoking piece! Thanks Barry and BBC Green Room! Yes the environment is an interconnected system of systems! And again and again we are realizing the shortcomings of tackling our problems in a piecemeal fashion. Even if scientists start pointing out the linkages between our actions and consequences, our political systems seem inequipped to respond in a way that fixes one problem without creating another. It’s is heartening when an elected member of parliament shows such a level of understanding!
Noha, Washington, DC

A compelling message once it is understood. Explained as clearly as this ignorance may not win the future.
Andy, Bruxelles

I agree strongly with Barry and its been a major concern that that environmental considerations will be sideline with the current economic climate. I second Barry’s (Leeds) comment if only the government push and support environmental concerns as hard as they work on the financial system. Maybe its time for a bigger power like the EU to take the lead in this region. Currently all environmental improvements via EU funds are mainstreamed within other programmes such as economic development. This is not the right message. If we want the environment to be the economic driver than policies, programmes and funds need to designed on this aspect. EU need to have a separate fund for environment since most other bigger donors life UNDP, UNEP and GEF are mainly focusing on developing countries.
Kalpana, Cardiff, Wales

So refreshing to hear a Westminster politician cover this subject so well. CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss are ‘THE’ challenges of the 21st century and they are very intimately link.

My feeling is that climate change is a hot topic of debate (not action unfortunately) because it is seen to some degree as a technical fix and economic opportunity. 20th century politics (which Gordon Brown represents) still views the world in terms of GDP growth and economic models and CO2 emissions can be ssen to fit into these (e.g. decoupling CO2 and GDP, renewable sector growth etc).

However, biodiversity can only be tackled by consuming less (not consuming more but more efficiently). This concept is totally alien to most post-Thatcher/Reagan economists and politicians. Of course there’s also the other thorny issue of population growth 🙁

Having studied Env Science for the past 7 years I can see the train wreck we’re heading towards but I’m still accused of being a woolly green idealist. I don’t see it that way, I think of myself as a hard-nosed environmentalist willing to face up the new challenges. It is economists and politicians with their 20th C world view that are living in a dreamworld (or imo nightmare) of perpetual growth.
Roly, London

It is good to read that an MP is concerned about biodiversity, as a conservation biologist that has worked and lived for the last 15 years in developing countries in the tropics, I wish there were more. Unfortunately I think biodiversity and conservation in developing/emerging nations is going to be another causality of the financial crisis.
Colin, Sabah

I agree with the broad spectrum that Barry puts forward. We are facing a ecological crisis far greater than any banking crisis. The issue of market forces and valuing ecosystem services is not addressed in mainstream economics. Herman Daly the founder of ecological economics offers many solutions putting a price on ecosystem services and how prudent discounting can protect fragile ecosystems. I would disagree with Barry when he says there is no organization like the IPCC relating to biodiversity. Indeed the WWF published a detailed “living Planet Report” anally and the UNDP published the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment giving a overview of the decline of biodiversity in all biomes. The choice of Governments to ignore these warnings is a reflection of ignorance and misinterpretation.
Philip Crump, Plymouth UK

Governments seem to be only able to handle one major crisis at a time. Biodiversity was in vogue for a number of years in the 1990s but Climate Change has pushed it out. Now the World economic crisis has pushed Climate Change off the front page, although Stern showed how closely linked they are. Attempts have been made to cost ecosystem services, starting with Costanza et al in Nature in 1997 ($33 trillion per annum)but politicians and the general public don’t read scientific journals so their impact has never been as great as the effect the Stern Report had for Climate Change. But you could argue that even this seems to have had little real influence on the thinking of governments across the World. It is only with a new administration in the US that the Challenge seems to have been renewed to combat Climate Change.

Barry Gardiner has made some valuable points but will either this government or others around the World respond to them? I doubt it somehow!
Dr Nick Carter, Spalding England

Thank you Barry Gardiner and the Green Room. You clearly pointed out the inter-connected nature of living systems, of which we humans are a part of, but tend to forget whilst watching the scary stories on the nightly news. It is broadly agreed that biodiversity is a key indicator of a healthy living system, our “canary in the coal mine”. Our living system happens to be the planet Earth, and as we compromise the health of this system by pushing it to the limits (and often beyond) through exploitation of natural resources (unsustainable forestry, fishing, mining, excess consumption, for example), we are destroying the very foundations we require for healthy human habitation. Yes, climate change is clearly an issue, but more so from the perspective on how it will effect biodiversity rather than the economy. We must put first things first. The fundamental flaws with the world’s financial system were there for many years before the collapse and we did not act. Do we need to wait for our ecological systems to collapse before we come to our senses? Then it will be far too late.
Tibor Hegedis, Hepburn Springs, VIC. Australia

Just few thousands years ago, we were struggling to create space for the agriculture and homes on the earth which was full of forest and biodiversity. We killed animals, birds, fishes for our survival. We utilized their flash, skins etc for our use. We survived and moved forward. With the help of many discoveries and ideas, we kept on developing ourselves and became the most powerful specie of this planet. But, things have reversed now. We have to recreate the forest, environment, biodiversity with the same passion what we have been destroying earlier and even today. Once again it’s a question of our survival. On one hand, we are seeking possibility of shifting life on the Mars and other planets; on the other hand we are least bothered about the natural biodiversity available on our own planet. We have outnumbered all the species. We are the fittest person on the planet though we have made our own planet unfit for everybody. Barry Gardiner has raised a most basic issue and I really support his effort.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Humans are in direct competition with all other species – we cannot protect biodiversity without limiting the size and impact of the rapidly expanding human population. Such measures are unacceptable to our blinkered politicians, who will continue with “business as usual” politics until global heating and mass extinctions makes large areas of the earth uninhabitable for humans. We need to face up to the approaching catastrophe and demand the radical measures that are necessary to mitigate it. It is no longer preventable, but to ensure our species survives at all we need to act now.
Leyton Williams-Davies, Pontypool, Wales

The vast majority of Australian Politicians and powerful forestry groups view nature as an extraction/exploitation resource that must supply commodities for industry to justify its existance. Australia’s unique Gondwana ecosystems are doomed to be enlessly ‘compromised’. The Murray River is dying and Tasmania’s moist forests are logged; prime examples of this ‘economic rationalist’ death wish. No jobs on a dead planet. Good for you Barry Gardiner!
Angela Halpin, Trentham Victoria Australia

GMO’s, climate change, overfishing, clear-cutting, strip mining, chemical fertilizers and long-lived / broad spectrum pesticides … will it end only when we are too weak to continue the assault on this space-ship earth that we are compelled to call home?

I’m an organic gardener and yes, biodiversity matters.
Bill in Detroit, Detroit, MI USA

I agree with Mr. Gardiner. Polar bears and pandas are cute, but the world could make it without them. Frogs, honey bees and earthworms are just a few of many more also at risk. We would be far worse off without them. Meanwhile the human species carries on with warfare over petty disputes over religion and tribal feuds. It’s long past time to wake up people.
Les Johnson, Selkirk NY USA

I couldn’t agree more. What this government (and all others) needs is to recognise this fact before it’s too late and make everyone else fully aware of the issue, but I’m afraid that eco dollars aren’t as influential as consumer dollars.

We need to take the lead, but is Gordon the right man to lead us?
Pete, Rhiwlas

Biodiversity is vital to our survival on this planet. Unfortunately, not many people are able (or willing) to connect the dots as poignantly as Barry Gardiner. I applaud him and encourage him to continue the work of bringing this awareness to governments and to the public.
Jan Kabatoff, Canmore, Alberta, Canada

Yes, I entirely agree with the distinguised MP.

We human beings took the atmospher for granted and emitted all sorts of noxious gases and we see where we are now. The same is happening with the way we treat living resources. If you go into rural Africa or other similar developing countries, life is almost completely dependent on biological resources. The hats they live in are built from grass and wood. You see people flocking to the nearby markets carrying things on their heads, shoulders or on the back of pack animals. Everything is a product or an extract of the natural living things in the surrounding environment- fruits, wood, eggs, butter, grains, birds, charcoal, traditionally weaved garments, etc. Imagine what the dramatic depletion of these resources would mean to the livelihood of these people.

Measures that are taken in areas such as fisheries, forestry and wildlife are primarily intended to regulate competition among users and to generate revenues for the government from license fees or by imposing user fees. The real value of the ecological services that these resources are providing to keep the complex web of life healthy are not taken into account. Valuation of the ecological services of species and the inclusion of such values into the national accounting system is long overdue. Moreover, no effort that we take to day with respect to climate change will be successful or sustainable in a world that loses its biological diversity base in an alarming rate.
Worku Damena Yifru, Montreal, Canada

I think I agree with Barry, although I think he is wrong about externalities in economics and is being a bit unfair to economists. I always understood an externality was a cost of consuming a resource that is not reflected in the market price. The timber merchant pays the cost of extracting wood to a logger for example, but neither of them pays the price of the loss of bio-diversity. That cost is incurred by us all and by future generations. I thought the point of an externality was not that we need not ascribed a value, but that we MUST artificially ascribe a value through taxation, legislation etc. to ensure the market price reflects the true cost of consuming a resource (although, how do you ascribe a value to biodiversity?). It seems to me the unregulated free market model that has come to pre-dominate world-wide is simply unable to deal with the major environmental problems we now face. However, a new economic model that can address these issues is just not emerging fast enough.
Paul A,

Absolutely agree, if the Government would put as much energy and effort into this matter as they are in trying to rejuvenate a now discredited financial system, then we would be much further forward. I have no faith this will ever happen under the present government, because our leader is an economist with no environmental credentials.
Mark, Leeds


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