Why don’t we measure biodiversity?

By John Upton

Vast resources are plowed into measuring the metrics associated with global warming. Calculations reveal that American and European greenhouse gas emissions are falling while China’s are rising, and that more carbon dioxide is being pumped out worldwide every year than had been the case the year before. We know that carbon dioxide levels passed a record-breaking 400 parts-per-million point in May, well above the preindustrial level of 280 ppm, before dipping in line with normal seasonal fluctuations — that knowledge is courtesy of air monitoring in Hawaii and the findings of ice-core studies. And gravity-measuring satellites are used to estimate the rate at which glaciers are melting — revealing that despite harboring just 1 percent of the world’s land ice, these thawing rivers of ice are responsible for 29 percent of the rise of sea levels.

The results of these measurements don’t just keep us awake at night. They help policy-makers target efforts to reduce emissions and to prepare communities for changes in the climate.

But what about biodiversity?

Although the world is rallying around efforts to come to terms with its climate problem (even if not enough is being done to actually solve that problem), it is failing to measure the alarming decline of biodiversity, which by one recent estimate has fallen 30 percent in 40 years. It is not investing the resources needed to track the genetic stockpile contained in the cells of plants, animals, mushrooms and other forms of life as forests are bulldozed, rivers are diverted and acidifying oceans are overfished.

Every time a species or a jungle is lost, and every time environmental tumult helps generalists (such as ring-billed gulls) outcompete specialists (such as piping plovers), the world loses some of its genetic code. That code is critically important. It can help an ecosystem weather changes in the, well, in the weather, which is happening now more than ever in human history. It can help sustain a myriad of complex food chains that underpin the very functioning of the natural world. And it can present humans with chemical compounds that prove useful as new drugs or foods.

If we are to get a handle on the specifics of the biodiversity crisis, which we must do if we are to effectively manage the problem, then more scientists need to be trained and employed and provided with the resources needed to advance their fields.

Aware of the problem of falling biodiversity, the United Nations last year formed the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service. The group is structured a bit like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeits primary function is to review, assess, synthesize and share information about biodiversity with policy makers.

Illustrated by Perry Shirley.
Illustrated by Perry Shirley.

The group held meetings in Malaysia this week to discuss two main topics: the measurement and assessment of genetic and biological resources; and the calculation of the value of key ecosystem services.

The conclusion: The world just isn’t doing enough to measure biodiversity.

“Of the estimated 10.8 million species on land and in the oceans, less than 2 million have been scientifically described,” IPBES chairman Zakri Abdul Hamid, science advisor to Malaysia’s prime minister, said in a statement published Wednesday at the end of the three days of talks. “If we don’t know what species there are out there, we don’t know what niche they fill in a healthy ecosystem or perhaps in remedying some human condition.” More from the statement:

Most world nations – unanimously committed to protecting biodiversity – nevertheless cannot measure and assess their genetic and biological resources, nor the value of key ecosystem services nature provides to them, international experts from 72 countries warned today.

In addition to taxonomists, nations lack economists able to put a value on the water purification, storm protection and other services of nature, which would inform trade-off choices in development planning. And fewer still deploy social scientists to estimate nature’s non-economic (e.g. cultural) values, or to find ways to effect needed changes in human attitudes and behaviour.

“There’s an old saying: We measure what we treasure. Unfortunately, though we profess to treasure biodiversity, most nations have yet to devote adequate resources to properly measure and assess it along with the value of ecosystem services,” Zakri said. “Correcting that is a priority assignment from the world community to IPBES.”