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Royal Society essays explore threats to global biodiversity and case for urgent action

15 December 2020

Leading figures in the fields of conservation, economics and sustainable development call for the urgent protection and restoration of global biodiversity in a series of essays ahead of the United Nations’ biodiversity summit, COP15, in Kunming, China next year.

Commissioned by the Royal Society from experts across the sciences and humanities, these essays are intended to strengthen the evidence base on biodiversity and guide international policymakers ahead of the summit.

Evolution has created millions of species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes which are threatened by human activity and the changes we are causing to Earth’s climate. Their loss jeopardises the systems that provide our food, regulate our climate and buffer against threats like flooding and disease.

The first tranche of essays explains why biodiversity loss is ‘evolutionary suicide’, and looks at how the impacts of human consumption and population growth on the natural world can be mitigated.

“These essays present the case for ambitious steps to reverse biodiversity decline,” said Professor Yadvinder Malhi CBE FRS, Professor of Ecosystem Science, University of Oxford and Chair of the Royal Society’s Biodiversity steering group. 

“For society to flourish, the natural world must thrive. Biodiversity is the inherited biological wealth of the Earth, and has intrinsic value in its own terms. It is also essential for meeting the most basic of human needs - food, water, shelter, clothing, fuel and medicines. It also helps clean pollution from the environment, influences climate and cycles nutrients crucial to life. It is integral to our physical and mental wellbeing and society at large.

“The full suite of essays will explore the context and causes of biodiversity loss, and what needs to be done to reverse this decline. Through these essays and its ongoing policy work, the Royal Society aims to stimulate discussion and a system-wide response to biodiversity loss.”

The first three essays are summarised below:

Emergent and vanishing biodiversity, and evolutionary suicide – Simon A. Levin, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, explores the importance of biodiversity to humanity, and warns us of an imminent ‘evolutionary suicide - in the same way as the spread of cancer cells kills the host and the cancer cells. To prevent this, he emphasises the importance of preserving the variety and robustness of natural ecosystems, within which species co-exist, relate and evolve, and which are at the core of the services we enjoy from nature. As players in a global coordination game, recognising and valuing the priorities of other groups will be vital for effective collective action on biodiversity

Consumption patterns and biodiversity – Jianguo Liu, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, urges us to rethink our consumption habits to ensure these are less harmful to biodiversity. He offers a new approach which takes into consideration global consumption patterns and associated conservation challenges which arise when the production of goods and services is separated geographically from consumption – dubbed “telecoupling”. Using this approach to trace flows along supply chains and coordinate efforts across systems would make it possible to account for the biodiversity impacts of goods and services - and make those who damage nature liable for the cost.

Demographic trends and policy options – John Bongaarts, Distinguished Scholar, Population Council, states that the effect of population growth on biodiversity is often ignored by policymakers - in part because of its sensitivity and opposition to family planning from different demographics. He outlines two main avenues to address rising global population – through stimulating socio-economic change (for example, through the education of women) or by investing in family planning programmes. In particular, he shows how reproductive health programmes could enable governments in less developed countries (LDCs) to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies. 

The remaining essays are expected to be published early in 2021.

All the Royal Society’s biodiversity work is available at -

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