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Asia’s environment is at a tipping point

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This piece was originally published in the Diplomat for International Day of Biodiversity. Many WLE researchers contributed to the IPBES regional assessments which were launched in March, 2018.

The Asia-Pacific region continues to lead the world’s economic growth, but a recent ground-breaking report by more than 130 of the region’s leading scientists and experts calls the future of this trajectory into question. The report provides extensive evidence that growth has been achieved at significant environmental cost and that we need to urgently reduce and, where possible reverse, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation to ensure a more sustainable future for our children.

For the last three years, as part of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), we have co-chaired the Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Asia and the Pacific. The most important finding of the report is that, while the rate of biodiversity loss in all parts of the region has never been higher, there has also never been as great an opportunity to stop this trend.

First, the reality check

Between 1990 and 2010, the region grew at an estimated annual average economic growth rate of 7.6 percent, with much of this growth underpinned by healthy ecosystem services and rich biodiversity. As the most populous region of the world, this lifted millions of people out of poverty and improved the quality of life of millions more.

But this growth came at a high cost to the environment. Many of the region’s forest, alpine, wetland, and coastal ecosystems are now degraded and important biodiversity resources are facing serious threats. Climate change has led to extreme weather and sea level rise; increased waste and pollution from growing and poorly planned urbanization is tainting our water and air; habitat destruction from agricultural intensification and monocultures is destroying important flora and fauna; and the introduction and spread of invasive alien species is accelerating this degradation.

More people in the Asia-Pacific region depend on fishing and marine ecosystems for their food and livelihood security than any other region, but if current aquaculture, overfishing, and destructive harvesting practices continue, fishery and marine ecosystem based livelihoods are at great risk. It’s projected that if these unsustainable practices continue, many commercial fish stocks will decline considerably – and may even collapse – perhaps as soon as in 30 years. This trend is exacerbated by ocean warming, acidification, sea level rise, and extreme weather events brought about by anthropogenic climate change and increased pollution.

As forests, wetlands, and coastal ecosystems become increasingly threatened, the distribution and populations of flora and fauna are being thrown out of balance. The region’s loss of native varieties of cultivable plants is estimated to be the highest in the world. These rapid changes lead to increased disease and pest outbreaks, as well as takeover by invasive alien species.

Such dramatic changes are happening at an unprecedented rate, and they are having huge impacts on agriculture, human health and economic growth – with worse to come if we don’t act now.

Not all doom and gloom

The region has been showing some positive developments. We are protecting ever-larger marine and land areas. Forest cover has increased by 2.5 percent overall, with Northeast Asia showing an increase as high as 23 percent in the last 25 years. And countries have invested part of their growing wealth in restoring some of the natural habitats lost as a result of their economic success. For example, China increased its forested areas by nine million hectares, and Vietnam has increased its forest cover from 36 percent to 48 percent since 1990.

But increases in forest area may not align with biodiversity rich ecosystems, and these efforts alone aren’t sufficient if we are to stop and reverse biodiversity loss.

So what are the main opportunities to improve biodiversity health in the Asia-Pacific? How can countries in the region learn from their successes and failures and adjust their policies, regulations and institutions for a more sustainable future?

We need to act together now

We should all do more to prioritize effective policies and actions to stop biodiversity loss. For example, policymakers can improve biodiversity conservation by creating and increasing the economic incentives for people that depend on forests by providing better access to non-timber forest products to conserve trees and enhance carbon stocks. Perverse incentives, such as harmful subsidies (cheap land, credit, fertilizer and higher-than-market agriculture product prices) for businesses and large-scale farmers, can be removed in order to protect natural capital and ensure that development doesn’t happen at the expense of ecosystems. It makes good social, economic, and political sense for countries to protect the environment, since failing to do so will seriously jeopardize the health, wealth, resilience, and happiness of all citizens.

Better application of scientific knowledge and technology can improve food, water, and energy security, while reducing pressure on biodiversity and ecosystems in many countries in Asia and the Pacific.

We must also empower local communities to make better-informed decisions in order to ensure that their interests and those of their local ecosystems are considered. We can learn a great deal from indigenous and local peoples, respecting and integrating different knowledge systems and customs together, while increasing their capacity to better care for their environment and enhance their share of benefits.

Biodiversity conservation must also be integrated into planning, financing, and business practices for agriculture, energy, and industrial production. This may require more private-public partnerships, in which companies who benefit from biodiversity protection work with public sector partners who provide environmental checks. Improving cross-border collaboration and regional governance is key to ensuring shared benefits. Biodiversity resources and ecosystem services don’t stop at national borders, so neither should sustainable ecosystem management.

Finally, as individuals, we can support policies and actions that work toward healthier ecosystems. We can waste less food, use water more efficiently (both in agriculture and in the home), and increase our energy efficiency. Most importantly, we can educate our children on the importance of making choices that help conserve biodiversity.

If we are to meet our most pressing challenges and global targets and goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to preserve our ecosystem health and biodiversity wealth. We have growing populations to feed, and pollution and waste management crises to overcome. We must wisely manage our ecosystems, decrease pollution, and increase biodiversity protection. Otherwise, we risk the future food, water, and energy security of the region, and the quality of life we are enjoying today will be dramatically reduced, and our economic growth untenable.

Protecting nature is not an inconvenience. It’s an imperative.