13 Jan 2015

Human development and biodiversity conservation can go hand in hand, study finds

This study shows that we can eradicate hunger, poverty and improve overall human wellbeing while improving the state of nature (Andy Kobel; flickr.com)
By Martin Fowlie

A new scientific study has assessed the impact of future human development scenarios on the conservation of species, using data from the IUCN Red List.

The study, published in the journal Conservation Letters and involving 10 institutions including BirdLife International, developed new approaches for assessing the potential impacts of different policy decisions.

The authors used the Red List Index – an indicator of biodiversity trends first developed by BirdLife using data for birds, and showed how it can be projected into the future, using data on two groups of mammals: carnivores and ungulates.

Alongside results for a similar approach using the Living Planet Index, they found that a global business-as-usual scenario of socio-economic and environmental policy would bring increased deforestation and carbon emissions causing up to 1 in 4 species of carnivore and ungulates to be at higher risk of extinction by 2050. No species are expected to improve their current prognosis under this scenario.

Growing human population and economic development will increase the demand for food, energy and other essential goods, such as clean water, fibers and wood. Under business-as-usual these demands are satisfied by increasing agricultural productivity and expanding agricultural land and freshwater consumption; by expanding fisheries and aquaculture; by increasing the use of fossil fuels and wood products. These trends reduce extreme poverty and improve human health but come at high environmental costs.

“Human development goals and biodiversity conservation do not need to be competing”, said the lead-author of the paper Piero Visconti affiliated with the IUCN Red List Global Mammal Assessment program in Rome, Italy, and Microsoft Research in Cambridge UK. “We found that at an alternative scenario exists that can eradicate hunger, poverty and improve overall human wellbeing while improving biodiversity trends globally”, acontinued Visconti.

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In this “Consumption Change” scenario, the access to food, energy and water to the poor is increased to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals while reducing per-capita consumption in the developed world, reducing post-production waste of crops, and adopting a healthier diet with reduced meat consumption as recommended by the Harvard Medical School of Public Health.

In the Consumption Change scenario, the increased demand of agricultural products is almost entirely satisfied without increase in cropland, and simply by more efficient use of the current productive capacity. The pathway of policy changes in the Consumption Change scenario was designed backwards from a set of desired goals in 2020 and 2050 using complex socio-economic, biophysical and ecological models. This technique, called back-casting, is new to ecology and conservation and was trialed for the first time for a global assessment of the future of an entire group of species.

“This kind of study is key for the work of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services [IPBES], whose aim is to inform global policy making to address the current biodiversity crisis”, said co-author Rob Alkemade of PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and Head of the Technical Support Unit for the IPBES assessment on scenarios and modelling.

“This study provides a new way to assess the potential impacts on biodiversity of different policy scenarios”, said co-author Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International. "It shows how the IUCN Red List is valuable not only for helping to identify priorities for conservation action now, but also for understanding the potential future implications of different policy trajectories.”