To slow and reverse the fastest loss of living things on Earth since the dinosaurs, nearly 200 countries have signed an accord in Montreal, Canada, pledging to live in harmony with nature by 2050. The Kunming Accord -Montreal is not legally binding, but it will require signatories to report on their progress towards achieving goals such as protecting 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030 and restoring degraded habitats.
Not everyone is happy with the settlement, or sufficiently convinced that it was promised to prevent mass extinctions. Fortunately, research has revealed a lot about the best ways to revive and boost biodiversity – the variety of life forms, from microbes to whales, found on Earth.
Here are five suggestions:
1. Scrap subsidies
The first thing countries should do is stop paying for the destruction of ecosystems. The Montreal Pact calls for reducing incentives for environmentally harmful practices by US$500bn (£410bn) each year by 2030.
Research published in 2020 showed that ending fuel and maintenance subsidies would reduce overfishing. Less fishing means more fish at sea and higher catches for the remaining fleet with less effort. Global fisheries could reduce their emissions and become more profitable.
Demolition policies that subsidize overexploitation in all sorts of industries – fishing, agriculture, forestry and of course fossil fuels – are in many cases the lowest fruit to pick to save biodiversity.
2. Protect the high seas
Nearly half of the Earth’s surface is outside national jurisdiction. The high seas belong to no one.
In the twilight zone of the ocean, between 200 and 1,000 meters deep, fish and krill migrate uphill to feed at night and downhill to digest and rest during the day. It is the ocean’s biological pump, which sucks carbon near the surface of the ocean down to its depths, storing it away from the atmosphere and thereby reducing climate change.
The total mass of fish living in the open sea is much greater than in the overexploited coastal seas. Although not yet exploited to any great extent, the high seas and the distant ocean around Antarctica need binding international agreements to protect them and the important planetary function they serve, which which ultimately benefits all life by helping to maintain a stable climate.
3. Prohibit clearcutting and bottom trawling
Some methods of natural resource extraction, such as clear-cutting (cutting down all trees) and bottom trawling (hauling a large fishing net close to the seabed) devastate biodiversity and should be phased out.
Clearcutting removes large amounts of living material that will not be replenished until the forest has regenerated, which can take hundreds of years, especially for forests in higher latitudes on Earth. Many species that are adapted to live in fully developed forests are subsequently doomed by clearcutting.
Bottom trawling captures fish and crustaceans indiscriminately, disturbing or even eradicating animals that live on the seabed, such as certain types of coral and oysters. It also throws plumes of sediment into the water above, emitting greenhouse gases that had been locked away. Seabeds trawled continuously for a long time can appear lifeless or commoditized with fewer species and less complex ecosystems.
4. Empower indigenous land defenders
Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of many of the world’s best preserved ecosystems. Their struggle to protect their lands and waters and the traditional ways of using ecosystems and biodiversity for their livelihoods are often the main reason why such important environments still exist.
Such examples are found throughout the world, for example, more primates are found on native lands than in surrounding areas.
5. More Production Goals
Many management practices will need to change because they are based on unrealistic assumptions. Fishing, for example, aims for maximum sustainable yield (MSY), a concept developed in the mid-twentieth century that means taking the greatest catch of a fish stock without diminishing the stock in the future. Something similar is also used in forestry, although it involves more economic considerations.
These models were heavily criticized in subsequent decades for oversimplifying how nature works. For example, species often contain several local populations that live separately and reproduce only among themselves, but some of these “sub-stocks” could still become overexploited if a single production target were applied to all of them. However, the idea of maximum sustainable yield came back into fashion during this century as a means of reducing overfishing.
Herring is a good example here. The species forms many different substocks in the North Atlantic, but maximum yield has been adopted over large areas. In the Baltic Sea, for example, Swedish fishing rights were granted to the largest shipowners as part of a neoliberal economic policy aimed at achieving a more efficient fishing fleet. Local herring stocks are now in decline, and with them local adaptations (genetic diversity) may eventually disappear.
Moving toward more robust strategies than elusive optimal goals to extract the most fish or trees while maintaining stock or forest can lead to a more resilient path when it comes to biodiversity and climate mitigation. This could mean lower fishing quotas, but also moving from industrial fishing to more local fishing with smaller fishing vessels.
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Henrik Svedäng does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.