Everyone has heard of the climate crisis. Increasingly, governments, individuals, corporations, communities and NGOs are addressing this issue by aiming to increase their sustainability and cut their carbon footprint (although we can’t forget about other greenhouse gases, such as methane!)
However, the biodiversity crisis gets much less attention despite being just as serious. Biodiversity is a measure of the variety of life on earth, everything from birds, mammals and reptiles, to insects, fungi, bacteria and the plankton in our oceans.
Flora and fauna on Earth are declining at a dangerous rate and experts now warn that we are experiencing a sixth mass extinction. This is as a result of human activities, such as pollution, and habitat loss due to urbanisation and the drive for more agricultural land.
This isn’t just devastating for all of the other species on Earth, a mass extinction on this scale will be catastrophic for humans too. While governments are starting to take environmental issues more seriously, more needs to be done to make the biodiversity crisis a key consideration across all departments, in same the way that this is starting to happen with the climate crisis.
The biodiversity and climate crises are closely linked and it is impossible to secure environmental sustainability for future generations by only addressing the climate crisis and ignoring the biodiversity crisis.
Nature is able to tell us a lot about the real-life impacts of climate change. Shifts in many species’ distributions and behaviour is showing us that changes in the climate are already having a notable impact.
Species are moving further north as temperatures rise and are colonising new areas. Moth species such as the Blair’s Shoulder Knot, for example, were previously never found in Ireland but have spread rapidly, and I’ve even found them in my own garden!
While some species are arriving in new places, for others their life cycles have been altered. With spring now arriving earlier in the UK and Ireland, this can have a damaging impact on species that have fallen out of sync with the emergence of their prey.
Rising temperatures mean that high altitude species such as the Scottish crossbill, which is only found in the UK, will soon have nowhere else to go as temperatures rise and they can’t move further north.
Birds that nest on saltmarshes threatened by rising sea levels or areas prone to flooding will increasingly experience nest failures. Many of these species are already in decline due to habitat loss and other human pressures.
In Central America, climate change could lead to the disappearance of almost all of the cloud forests within this century. These unique ecosystems, characterised by constant cloud cover, are threatened by rising temperatures and their disappearance could cause many stunning tropical species to go extinct.
While we might think that hotter summers would be beneficial to butterflies, warmer winters actually have a negative effect on most UK butterfly species.
On top of changes in temperatures disrupting nature’s fine-tuned cycles, more extreme weather events, such as more frequent storms, are also likely to have a negative impact on many species that are already in decline.
However, while the climate crisis is making the biodiversity crisis worse, it also works the other way round. Some of the most concerning impacts of climate change will likely be worsened by biodiversity loss.
Food insecurity is probably the best example. Climate change will threaten our ability to feed our populations as more crops fail due to desertification, flooding and other extreme weather events.
But this will be made worse by the decline in pollinators. With many species of bee, hoverfly, moth and other key pollinators decreasing in number, the problems caused by climate change will only be compounded.
Another example of the biodiversity crisis worsening the effects of the climate crisis is the loss of mangrove swamps. These unique wetland forest habitats, found in the tropics and subtropics, act as a key shield to protect coastal communities from extreme storms.
If they are allowed to disappear, we are not just losing a range of plant and animal species, but also a key defence against climate change-induced extreme weather events.
But there is plenty that we can do to address both the climate and biodiversity crises. One of the ways that we can potentially tackle both crises at once is by using nature-based solutions.
Nature-based solutions are natural carbon stores which, when done right, can provide much-needed habitats for declining species. Habitats such as woodland, peatlands, wildflower meadows and hedgerows are all excellent terrestrial carbon stores, while kelp forests, salt marshes and seagrass beds are highly effective marine carbon stores.
Preserving, restoring or creating these habitats can store CO₂ but they must be done with biodiversity in mind. When, for example, trees are planted in inappropriate places or are not native species, they can actually cause more harm than good.
One of the most concerning examples of this is planting non-native conifer trees on peat bogs. This not only destroys the bog habitat for declining species, but it also leads to a rise in carbon emissions because the damaged peat will release carbon instead of storing it.
By taking a more nuanced approach than simply ‘let’s plant more trees’, we can make a real difference to the environment. Restoring peatlands, 86% of which in Northern Ireland are damaged, will benefit birds such as curlew that breed on peatlands and a range of unique invertebrates including dragonflies and damselflies.
Basically, we can’t afford to tackle the climate crisis while ignoring the biodiversity crisis. Getting to net zero is a crucial goal but we can’t do it at the expense of nature.
By planting the wrong trees in the wrong place or by placing renewable infrastructure near key sites for nature, we are addressing one crisis while making the other one worse.
With Northern Ireland ranking as the 12th worst country in the world for biodiversity loss, we are running out of time to save a lot of the species that are experiencing the most severe declines.
In a year that will be dominated by global environmental conferences, we must continue to raise our voices about the biodiversity crisis, especially in the run-up to COP26 in November.
Let’s make sure that biodiversity is on the climate agenda in 2021!
Dakota Reid is a final year International Politics and Conflict Studies student at Queen's University with an interest in environmental policy and conservation volunteering