Just 10% of global land in natural state by 2050 without action, says biodiversity expert

First session of Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss sits at Dublin Castle

Only 10 per cent of the world's land will be left in a "near natural state" by 2050 unless a different course is adopted, according to leading global thinker on biodiversity, Prof Robert Watson.

Addressing the first session of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss sitting in Dublin Castle on Saturday, he said humans needed food, water, energy and timber from the land, but urgently needed to transform associated production systems.

In a video message, he told 99 randomly selected citizens that already 75 per cent of “ice-free land”, 66 per cent of oceans and 85 per cent of wetlands and peatlands had been disturbed or lost due to human impacts caused by activities such as urbanisation, deforestation, monoculture agriculture and overfishing.

As a consequence, some 1 million out of 8.2 million species in the world risked becoming extinct over the next 150 years, added Prof Watson, based at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK.


“Biodiversity is critical to human wellbeing... we humans are destroying it, and therefore undermining our own future,” he underlined.

The loss was being driven by a combination of land and sea use change; exploitation including use of fossil fuels, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species, Prof Watson said, but climate change could become the main driver of this in coming decades.

Current climate policies and pledges by governments were inadequate as the world was facing a 3.2 degree rise this century, he said, but achieving net-zero emissions would be good in addressing the interlinked biodiversity crisis.

The world must move beyond emphasis on GDP growth and measure sustainable growth that puts a value on nature, he believed, “and every voice needs to be heard” as it was much more than an environmental problem.

“Governments recognise the importance of climate change and biodiversity, yet their policies and activities are still not sustainable. Transformative change is required. They needed to be told that,” Prof Watson said.

As individuals, he suggested there was a need to reduce food, water and energy waste in the best interests of nature.

He had participated in and advised citizens' assemblies on climate change, but commended Ireland for convening what he believed was the first citizens' assembly in the world on biodiversity.

Prof Tasman Crowe of UCD, part of an expert group advising the Assembly, said everything Prof Watson had highlighted on biodiversity loss applied to Ireland to varying degrees.

There were reports detailing the scale of the problem in this jurisdiction, but also a lack of information. With different government departments having different responsibilities on biodiversity, the challenge was to get co-ordinated thinking, he added.

Responding to participants, another expert, Dr Micheál Ó Cinnéide, said there was an absence of integrated policies to address the biodiversity crisis, adding “there is a lot of work to do there”.

A national biodiversity plan was in place but, unlike the Government’s climate plan, it was not mandatory with the force of law behind it, he noted. There was much to be done in enhancing education about sustainability, notably at Leaving Cert level, though he acknowledged the work of environmental NGOs and community groups in some parts of the country.

Ecologist Prof Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin said the emergence of Covid-19 was because of biodiversity loss and the destruction of nature, which undermined the relationship between humans and wild animals. This breakdown risked the emergence of new diseases, while impairing nature's ability to generate food from land and sea, and to act as a life-support system.

Environment writer and broadcaster Ella McSweeney challenged Assembly members to engage with biodiversity in their everyday lives and to create “a nature table in your mind”; to move from noticing nature to seeking it out – and fully understanding its significance.

She highlighted the swift, which spends its summers in Ireland, “the Aryton Senna of the skies”, which is identified by yikkering and a remarkable ability to eat, sleep and mate in the sky. Its population had declined by 40 per cent over the past 15 years – “a story of insect and habitat loss”.

Assembly chair Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin acknowledged the richness of Irish biodiversity, but did not want people to believe there was a global crisis “and everything is fine here”.

The Assembly would undertake a six-month programme of work, she confirmed, and called on participants and people outside the Assembly to “engage with its work in order to confront Ireland’s climate and biodiversity emergency declared in 2019”. This could be done by tuning into proceedings online and making submissions.

She said the Assembly would seek to address the fundamental issue of how the State could best respond to the challenge of biodiversity loss. “We are looking at devastating rates of loss of life and habitats across land and sea. Today we are hearing about the scale of the problem we have been asked to consider and over the course of the rest of the year will hear of some successful projects that are under way to try address these issues,” she added.

In parallel, a young peoples' assembly on biodiversity loss will feed in its findings and recommendations to the main assembly. Its next meeting on June 11th will be a field-trip to Bull Island, Turvey nature reserve and Dublin Port to view examples of Ireland's rich biodiversity.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times