You have probably seen the headlines “One million species threatened with extinction and humans to blame” and such like. But did you know, the UN study that lead to those headlines analysed the reasons we continue to lose species to extinction, and found a solution? Not only that, they found a solution that is practical, feasible, makes economic sense, and has preliminary government interest too, to the extent that over 100 governments were happy to sign off on their conclusions as a “summary for policy makers”.

This was the central point they wanted to present to the world. They said so themselves many times in the press conference. However I’m not sure how much of the world has heard their message. I have yet to see a news story that lays this out clearly. My hope with this article is to help reach a few more.

They did the most rigorous analysis ever done of such a situation involving experts in social sciences and economics as well as the natural sciences. From their analysis it has become clear, not only why we are losing so many species, not only how to fix it, but that we all benefit too, individuals, businesses, governments.

If we want it, this is a future world we can choose for ourselves by the actions we do right now. What’s more, we have time to act too. My short summary of their central message is

“Make Biodiversity Great Again, We Know How to do it”.

Here I’ve superimposed that central message, a message of great promise and hope, over the attention seeking “We are doomed” style headlines in the press.

This contrasts the hugely positive central message of the news conference with the dismal reporting of it by journalists.

The UN report was by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

That “Make biodiversity great again” quote is from the end of Dr Anne Larigaudrie presentation (she is the executive secretary of IPBES)

So we now hand [the report] over to the world, to all of the citizens, to governments, to our colleagues at the Convention on Biological Diversity who are going to have this major summit at COP15 in China next year.

But what we want to say is that we are all together in this. This is about the way we treat our world, our nature, about our future on this planet. Armed now with this new scientific evidence what we want to do is to make biodiversity great again

We can do it, but we have to work together as individuals, governments and companies. Professor Diaz in response to a question put it like this, about what we need to do at the individual level:

You have to claim your birthright to have a fulfilling life deeply connected with the fabric of life, which is healthy and in working order. That's not a luxury, that's everyone's birthright.

The director-general of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay said we are all part of the solution, and that nature is resilient and given half a chance will prevail:

“We don't want that people feel discouraged that there is nothing that can be done, that we've lost the battle, because we have not lost the battle, and if given a chance nature will reconquer its rights and will prevail, and so we really want everyone to feel that they can contribute, that they are part of the solution, and this is very much the main message that this report is bringing to the world.”

As for the million species, it got more attention than it deserved, overshadowing far more important aspects of the study.

It is about the "threatened" category, which includes vulnerable species, roughly speaking those with a 10% chance of extinction in a century, and its based on a rough extrapolation to the eight or so million species of eukaryotes - so that includes insects and minute sea creatures, many probably needing a microscope to see. It has to be a guess because most species haven’t been assessed at all. The 2011 paper said that at the time, 86% of existing species had not yet been described.

Half of those million species come from an estimate that 10% of an estimated 5.5 million species of insects have this 10% chance of extinction by 2100. The other half come from an estimate that 25% of the other 2.6 million species in a similar situation.

For details see:

The estimate was a well informed educated guess..

Whatever the precise number of threatened species, and whatever the number that are actually at risk of extinction in the near future, their main message, of course, is that we can save those million species and our wonderfully diverse ecosystems.

I will be quoting here from transcripts of the press conference and separate video summaries of the cochairs and lead authors.

Also the summary for policy makers and the Media Release.

UPDATE: draft chapters are now available online

This is another article I'm writing to support people we help in the Doomsday Debunked group on Facebook , that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of considering suicide, by such stories.

You can see this blog post with a table of contents on my website:

Add table of contents to this page (on my website) - blog post on Science 2.0 without the TOC

A systematic rigorous report - with involvement of social scientists and interdisciplinary experts

This is one of the main things new. The report presented was not a woolly optimism or fuzzy “feel good” intuition. It was not just a science study. It was also a study in social sciences.

Their conclusion was that not only that we can do it. It was far stronger than that. They said that it makes economic, personal and political sense to do it.

This social sciences element was very unusual for such a report. 58% of their 350 authors were natural scientists, but 33% were social scientists, and 9% interdisciplinary scientists. The social sciences part of it is also rigorous and worked out, how we can do this.

While writing this article, I ran into the issue that so far we don’t have the report yet.

No cites, summary for policy makers

Sadly they only released the summary for policy makers. This has lots of numbers but no cites. In the place of cites, it links to chapters in the full report which won’t be released until later this year. It also doesn’t give the details and explanations that scientifically minded readers would want to see. For scientific readers especially, the summary for policy makers is rather sketchy in places.

However as with the IPCC they do not do original research, at least, not in the subject areas of the natural sciences or biodiversity (I suppose the report itself is original research in the sense of social sciences, politics and economics in the way that it comes to its conclusions).

Like the IPCC, they are a review body which looks over all the research done by other scientists. This means that all the research they used to compile this report is also available to us to read too. So I can back up some of the things they said by going to sources that they may have used, though I can’t guarantee I’m using the same sources they did. Sometimes it is obvious what their source is. Also, they did mention some sources specifically in the press conference, such as the Red List. However, often it is not. Sadly also they do not give their scenarios in detail either.

So, I’m going to do the best I can to present the background to this. I will use some of the same studies they are using, or likely to be using, to give you the general context to it all. It is just background material. Obviously, we need to wait for the full report for the details of how they came to their conclusions.

So how would we do it and what is the basis for their confidence that we can do it?

Need for a broader focus

One of their central messages, going beyond even what the IPCC said, is that we need a broader focus. We can't have separate targets for biodiversity, well being for all, food and water, climate, energy.

They need to work together in a synergy. For instance carbon sequestration for climate has to be done with this broader focus.

They didn’t actually give any examples, as they were out of time, and I can’t see any in the summary for policy makers either, but there may be many ways to do carbon sequestration.

To take some examples, you can take up carbon in peat bogs, good agricultural soil, trees, woody shrubs, species rich grassland, coastal wetlands, or reed beds. A national or global policy to plant some particular species of tree everywhere, say, may not be optimal for either carbon sequestration, or for biodiversity, or for the ecosystem services.

This is a map from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the areas in Africa with especially high potential for greening in the near future:

Action Against Desertification

The original concept was of a literal “wall of trees” but this was not successful. Instead it has evolved into a vision of a mosaic of many practices, such as incorporating trees into the agriculture they are doing already and other methods of reversing desertification depending on the local situation. For instance in many places shrubs and grass may grow better than the trees.

This is a 2014 paper advocating this approach, which is the way it is being done now:

“In this paper, we argue that the GGW needs modifying if it is to be effective, obtain the support of local communities and leverage international support. Specifically, we propose a shift from planting trees in the GGW to utilizing shrubs (e.g., Leptospermum scoparium, Boscia senegalensis, Grewia flava, Euclea undulata or Diospyros lycioides), which would have multiple benefits, including having a faster growth rate and proving the basis for silvo-pastoral livelihoods based on bee-keeping and honey production.

Increasing the Effectiveness of the “Great Green Wall” as an Adaptation to the Effects of Climate Change and Desertification in the Sahel

The FAO write on their website:

The Great Green Wall must not be seen as a wall of trees to hold back the desert. This idea that initially inspired the initiative has given way to the vision of a mosaic of sustainable land use practices. At the same time, the wall is a metaphor to express the solidarity between African countries and their supporters.

Action Against Desertification

China planted nearly 79 million hectares by 2015. It’s been successful, but they did it by displacing local communities, and replacing them with these plantations of forests with nobody living there. There was some criticism from Western experts who say they shouldn’t focus just on trees but should use a mosaic approach as for Africa. As for Africa, in many places in northern China grass and shrubs may grow faster and provide more benefits to the local community. This also would surely lead to more biodiversity.

There is a lot of reafforestation going on, which could be a great opportunity for both biodiversity and for food, if we approach it in the right way. For instance, under the Bonn Challenge, 56 countries, from central and south America mainly, are pledged to restore 350 million hectares of forest by 2030. All four of the IPCC's scenarios for remaining within 1.5 °C involved some measure of afforestation.

Doing reafforestation in a biodiverse way can also help with carbon sequestration. In a recent study reported in Scientific American, researchers who planted a mix of trees rather than a single species found that they removed 32 tons per hectare instead of the more usual 12 tons. Diverse Forests Capture More Carbon

Carbon brief have a map of where reafforestation is happening around the world and with a summary of the research, and the opportunities and challenges here.

We can do that while at the same time encouraging and supporting agriculture and biodiversity.

(for more about this, my Debunked: That we are going to run out of topsoil in 40 years by Robert Walker

on Debunking Doomsday )

We need to get in the way of looking at this in an integrated way, finding the best solution at a local level each time.

We already know how to protect biodiversity - so why isn’t it working?

Another of their main messages was that we already know how to protect biodiversity. We have had over 50 years of nature conservancy and treaties? (This goes back to at least 1948 for the establishment of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature, and the signing of the International Union for the Protection of Nature).

We have saved many species from extinction, established vast nature reserves and ocean parks under the protection of UNESCO and others. Yet despite all the successes, and there have been many, for individual species and patches of ecosystems, we have had dismal failure when it comes to protecting biodiversity on a global scale.

They shared graph from the Red list.

It is striking, despite fifty years of vigorous conservation efforts, this is what we got. Extinction rates have continued to rise higher and higher in all the main groups of animals and plants:

So what have we been doing wrong? And can we stop this? This is the main thing the report looked into, and they have the answers to it!

Ingrid Vasserin, lead author of the chapter on options for decision makers, puts it like this in her separate video:

“So why are we still losing nature at such a horrific pace, when we've we have 50 years of experience with international nature conservation policy. Apparently we're doing something wrong.

And it turns out that in the report we show that if we focus on nature conservation purely on nature conservation we're doing okay but it's the true societal challenges that we have failed to address successfully.

The report is quite frank about the need for change and basically we need to change the the sheer fabric of our societies. So we need to make our economies and our societies more sustainable both in economic social and technological terms and that's what's called transformative change. It's actually getting rid of or addressing the underlying causes of the fact that our societies are environmentally unfriendly.”

This is what I will focus on in this article. The main reason I am writing this is to help bring attention to this important aspect of the report that seems to have been either missed, or not given much prominence by most of the journalists. Yet for the authors of the report, this was their main message, it was what they wanted the world to hear. This was repeated many times during the press conference.

What do they mean by transformative change?

This transformative change doesn’t mean some new global political system or economic or social system. Rather it is a new approach that encourages diversity and a variety of methods and solutions at all levels. Here I am paraphrasing D4 and D5 of the summary for policy makers.

For instance, the transformations will work differently in developing and developed countries. Any transformation like that has its uncertainties and complexities, but the risks can be reduced through approaches from government that are “integrative, informed and adaptive”.

It needs to be based on recognizing that different cultures have different values, economic conditions, power imbalances and vested interests. It involves learning from experience, and a combination of precautionary measures and using existing and emerging knowledge. Private - public partnerships are an important part of it too.

Also a key to all this is to recognize the knowledge, innovations, and practices, institutions and values of indigenous people and local communities.

Indigenous peoples have far more of a role to play than most of us realize. It’s not just a few small tribes here and there looking after tiny patches of still wild nature. Indigenous people are still responsible for more than a quarter of the entire land surface of the Earth (managing it or with tenure rights). This amounts to 40% of the land currently protected or ecologically intact.

Also to recognize land tenure of local people, free, prior and informed consent for access and resource rights, and improved collaboration including equitable sharing of benefits and co-management where local people are involved in management of their resources.

For an overview summary of the approaches for sustainability and the actions and pathways that can achieve them, see their Table SPM.1 “Possible actions and pathways to achieve transformative change” in the summary for policy makers.

Perverse biodiversity destroying agricultural and energy subsidies

The main reason we haven’t done it yet, according to them, is due to perverse environmental subsidies for agriculture and energy that encourage loss of diversity. They said that these subsidies actually make no economic sense either, and continue due mainly to vested interests that have become comfortable with the status quo, and oppose change and act to keep those subsidies in place.

And yet these subsidies are not even best for businesses generally, or economically. It is just economic and political inertia. The vested interests are used to these subsidies, have set up ways of working that let them exploit them, and don’t want this to change.

This is where this report is so innovative. They got the idea from the IPCC, of working together with the governments in the final stage.

The governments acknowledge this in the report and say themselves that these need to be opposed and changed, This is what makes a huge difference from previous reports. So also is their integrated approach where they take account of economics and social sciences as well as the natural sciences, in a way never done before.

As Josef Settele put it:

.. no previous assessment has considered at this scale the the simultaneous challenge of protecting nature, maintaining water, feeding the planet, supplying energy, while mitigating climate change etc, this is the most exhaustive report to have ever done that.

Now the answers to how to do that are absolutely innovative and they come from this report.

When have you ever seen an intergovernmental document that that proposed or called for a global sustainable economy, that argued for the elimination of harmful environmental subsidies, and that noted that vested interest would need to be overcome to do that.

I mean these are quite outstanding things for an intergovernmental process to agree to. Nations do not have to accept our findings and they did accept these so that that's quite startling actually.

Need to encourage circular economies that re-use materials

They say that instead of these perverse biodiversity destroying subsidies, we need subsidies that encourage a “circular economy”, one that re-uses materials, and that values natural services, the support that biodiversity gives to humans.

In the summary for policy makers they put it like this:

Promoting sustainable production and consumption, such as through: sustainable sourcing, resource efficiency and reduced production impacts, circular and other economic models

They also talk about life-cycle assessments - taking account of the entire life cycle of a product when assessing its impacts. Here are some more of their related points:

Table SPM.1: Possible actions and pathways to achieve transformative change in the summary for policy makers. There are numerous other specific recommendations in that table for how to do the transformative changes. There is a separate section for each of these, paraphrasing some of them:

  • Integrated policies that are coherent and effective
  • Including local people as stakeholders and involved in the decisions, including participation of women and girls.
  • Making sure the decisions are well informed and adaptive, including both local and indigenous knowledge and education as well as improved monitoring and documentation of nature and better valuation of “natural capital”
  • Producing and consuming food sustainably
  • Using sustainable forests in multiple ways integrated together
  • Sustainable use of terrestrial landscapes, in the way they are conserved and managed.
  • Similarly sustainable use of seascapes, oceans and marine systems
  • Building sustainable cities
  • Promoting sustainable energy and infrastructure projects
  • Improving the sustainability of economic and financial systems

If we can do this, working together we can greatly reduce the loss of biodiversity, while continuing to feed everyone, and with economic benefit to ourselves.

Working on this at an individual level too

We need to work on this at all levels however, including at an individual level. One issue they highlighted in the press conference is food waste, with between 40 and 50 percent of the fruit and vegetables wasted, and about 30 percent of cereal.

Most of us have heard those figures before but not stopped to reflect on what it means.

Those figures however mean that that percentage of global agricultural land, 30, 40 or even 50 percent, depending on the crop, is used to grow crops that are never eaten.

That is something we can work on at an individual level, thinking about what we eat, and eliminating food waste at all levels, because in the developed countries much of that waste happens “on our plates”.

We can also reduce the pressure on biodiversity by reducing the amount of meat we eat. This depends on the conditions in which the animals are kept but much of the meat we eat requires large areas of agricultural land just to grow crops that are fed to the animals. Others are kept on pasture that was created by cutting down forests. Reducing meat consumption by a small amount can have a large effect on the amount of land needed to produce our food.

We can feed everyone through to 2100 and beyond

First for anyone panicking, we do not risk human extinction, nor do we risk not being able to feed everyone. They were asked what the world looks like in 2050 in the worst case. One of their experts (Almud Arneth) said:

None of the scenarios we've been exploring would indicate that we cannot feed the world or cannot provide water cannot provide shelter that's for sure. But we can do it in a sustainable way or we can do it in an unsustainable way and that is really our choice.

She wasn’t given enough time to explain her reasoning. But let’s fill it out a bit.

How can we produce the food for an extra billion or three billion people?

27% of our land area is used for livestock - so, for dairy and meat. Only 7% of the Earth’s surface is used for crops. This ingenious map shows this graphically (not from the report)

Yields and Land Use in Agriculture (not from the report)

By 2050 then we may need to feed an extra billion people or more. So, how do we do it?

We could cut down the forests

One way to do that by 2050 and possibly over three billion more by 2100 would be to cut down some of that forest, or shrubland, and convert it to a combination of meat production and cropland. We could feed everyone through to 11 billion if we did that, but in an unsustainable way. By 2100 we have hardly any natural places left except those in protected areas.

We would have our crops, pets, domestic animals, garden plants, trees, domestic insects. We have our seed banks that preserve a large fraction of all plant species

We have our protected areas, and insects would not go extinct. Perhaps 10% of them are at risk of extinction according to this report, and less than 25%. Others are increasing in numbers.

Not a world without insects or top soil and not human extinction

There are a number of urban myths here, some of them propagated by journalists. If you have been influenced by that viral non systematic study that hit the headlines a while back please see my New research does NOT mean a world without insects. As for the 2013 article so often shared about us running out of topsoil, it is five years out of date, there has been a major turn around due to an initiative through the FAO, and it was hyperbole from the start, see my Debunked: That we are going to run out of topsoil in 40 years

And, the worst we could do, even if we destroy nature worldwide, is nowhere near an extinction scenario.

After all (speaking here as a space settlement enthusiast myself) there are ideas for ways we could survive as a colony on the Moon or on Mars, without even any ecosystem at all. There is no way we can run out of oxygen either, there is enough in our atmosphere to last us for thousands of years. See my We will NOT run out of oxygen to breathe, even if we cut down all the forests and the ocean plankton disappear

But everything would be that bit harder for us in a sadly depleted world.

So that’s one way. A sadly depleted world with most of the forest and scrubland converted to agriculture but we still feed everyone. Even if over centuries we reduced our world to a desert outside of human habitats, we could feed everyone with space colonies technology.

Feeding the planet from the deserts

Some of this will come from reversing desertification, feeding some of the world’s population from some of that barren land area, as with the Sahara great green wall project, which we’ve already touched on.

Techniques to help with this include improving irrigation, and using water more efficiently, using wastewater from cities for irrigation, and the saltwater greenhouses projects. Many desert areas are close to the sea or salt water and the desert sunshine can be used to evaporate water for the greenhouses which can also green the surrounding desert.

There is a lot of potential. The Sahara - Wikipedia at 9.2 million km² is not far off the area of the US (9.8 million km²) and more than twice the area of India (3.3 million km²) List of countries and dependencies by area

I can’t find much about this in the summary for policy makers, nor did they touch on it in the press conference, but they must cover it in the full report.

As an example, this project in China greened the Löss Plateau, which is the size of Belgium - you might think this is image manipulation, but no, this is a real project:

Loss Plateau in September 1995

Loess Plateau in September 2009. See Greening the desert

It is amazing what they did in China's Loess province,. This documentary, “Hope in a Changing Climate” - by the soil scientist John D. Liu (2009) covers the project right from the start when it was almost a desert landscape. The second half of the video covers how similar projects have transformed regions in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Video here:

Click to watch in YouTube

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment programme puts it like this, (27 minutes in)

"Why do we not invest an equal amount if not more into a shovel-ready technology so to speak which is nature's way of sequestering and storing carbon.

It is actually by investing in our ecological infrastructure and ecosystems in expanding the ability of nature to sequester and store carbon that we have the greatest opportunity to do something.

And the wonderful thing is it's not only carbon sequestration, we're also faced with loss of ecosystems that will affect our food security, our water security, we're losing species on an unprecedented rate, so maintaining, restoring, protecting, expanding natural ecosystems has multiple benefits, immediate in terms of climate change but also fundamental to the future of many of the services that we simply take for granted from nature."

The World Bank contributed about half of the funding (China was still eligible for International Development Association funding at the time of the project) For a cost of around half a billion dollars, most of this is from Restoring China's Loess Plateau

  • More than 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty, and incomes doubled, employment increased from 70 to 87%.
  • Output per capita increased from 0.366 metric tons to 0.591 metric tons per year
  • Food security ensured, before the project frequent droughts required occasional government food aid. Now it has changed from a narrow range of food and low-value grain to high value products.
  • Ecological balance restored in a vast area considered to be beyond help by many.
  • Sedimentation of waterways dramatically reduced. Soil erosion was reduced from 6579.55 tons per square kilometer per year to 1986.66 tons.
  • By 2000 they had conserved 177,000 square kilometers of eroded land with perennial vegetation increased from 17 to 34 percent.

This is another such project in Kenya

This is about several similar projects in the Peruvian coastal zone, which is arid but has moist air comes in from the Pacific. Four new agricultural projects there are growing pomegranates, sweet potatoes, asparagus and cut flowers.

This is a similar project in Jordan: Celebrating 10-Years at the Greening the Desert Project, Jordan. - The Permaculture Research Institute

This is one in the Los Monegros Desert, Zaragoze Spain

Click to watch in YouTube

This is another project in Mexico

And a later video about John di Liu which has some material from his earlier video and some new material for instance about another project in Jordan and also returning to the projects in China and Ethiopia.

Click to watch in YouTube

This is another vjdeo about reversing desertification in Iran

Click to watch in YouTube

In Australia

Click to watch in YouTube

As they say in the video, the way they do it is controversial because they use willow, a non native plant, as a natural dam to slow down the water loss. Also as they say in the video, he didn’t do before and after studies and some of the scientists are saying the evidence isn’t there that it is better than what they are doing already, which is to slow down the water using techniques such as rock chutes. Anyway whether rock chutes and encouraging native vegetation can have a similar effect or not, either way both are saying that the eroded landscape can be restored. The debate is over how best to do it. This is a paper comparing the two approaches:

It recommend comparison studies of this method and of other approaches to see which works best.

And Nepal

Click to watch in YouTube

For an example wastewater project see this project in Morocco From wastewater to oasis: Greening the desert

Click to watch in YouTube

This is another in Egypt

Click to watch in YouTube

As for the salt water greenhouses, this is an Australian desert project. The sea water is used to make water through the sunlight in the desert, and cool down the greenhouses.

Click to watch in YouTube

These ideas could be used to reverse desertification in the Sahara desert and other deserts. In this panel, hot dry dusty air from the desert blows through a honeycomb wall soaked in sea water. The air becomes humid, blows across the growing area and then some of it condenses on a second panel. The moist air then blows out of the greenhouse leading to benefits to the desert outside as well, plants may grow outside downwind of the greenhouse.

Diagrams by Raffa be from wikipedia (File:SG phase II.jpg)

So, it not only lets you grow crops in the greenhouses - it can also help make the surrounding areas more habitable, so you’d get trees and crops growing in an area around the greenhouses as well.

Seawater Greenhouse in Tenerife two years after being installed

All this vegetation has grown spontaneously around the Tenerife seawater greenhouse due to the moist air, just two years after it was installed:

This is what it was like before:

Seawater Greenhouse newly installed in Tenerife

So, this doesn’t extract anything from desert aquifers, rather, it adds to them.

Sundrop farms have a large area set out for greenhouses like this now, in the middle of a desert, so this is taking off in a big way in Australia. Early days yet though. More about it here.

This is a PBS News story about work to green deserts in Qatar peninsula in the Persian gulf, which covers the similar Sahara forest project

Click to watch in YouTube

The Sahara desert was humid and covered in grassland and lakes as recently as 5000 years ago, the African humid period. The German explorer Heinrich Barth was the first to discover these myserious paintings in the mid 1800s (see Green Sahara: African Humid Periods Paced by Earth's Orbital Changes).

Right in the middle of the Sahara desert, a few thousand years ago, ancient African people did rock carvings and paintings of abundant elephants, giraffes, aurochs (primitive cattle), hippos and antelopes pursued by hunters. The reason is that these creatures did roam the Sahara as recently as 5000 years ago.

Ancient rock art in Tadrart Acacus in Libya in the Acacus Mountains - Wikipedia

There is similar rock art in the Cave of Swimmers in Egypt.

Whether the Sahara is humid or dry is mainly due to the 41,000 year long precession of the Earth’s axis. At present when it is closest to the sun, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, so it’s the northern winter (most recently on January 3, 2019 at 05:20 UTC).

But ten thousand years ago it was closest in the northern summer. This leads to 7% more heat in north Africa. The warmer continent and rising air leads to an inrush of moist air from the Atlantic and monsoonal rains in summer. See: Green Sahara: African Humid Periods Paced by Earth's Orbital Changes

It is possible that humans may have hastened the end of the last period, but it was going to end anyway. See What Really Turned the Sahara Desert From a Green Oasis Into a Wasteland?

The Saharan green period started about 14,500 years ago and it’s a 25,772 year cycle. If we wait 11,500 years the Sahara may become green again naturally, giving us an extra area for agriculture more than two and a half times the area of India.

Meanwhile, if we can find a way to bring more water to the Sahara desert, perhaps with the saltwater greenhouses, more efficient use of irrigation or other methods, there is lots of potentially fertile soil there. Seen in this way, most deserts are really just potential future farmland without the water.

Eliminating food waste

Or we can do it by eliminating most of our food waste. They mention this in the IPBES report, and it probably comes from the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations)

According to them, we waste

“30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.”

Key facts on food loss and waste you should know!

Remembering that the land set aside for crops worldwide is roughly equal to the area of China, then that’s up to a third of the area of China, perhaps more, could be freed up for crops if we reduced food waste for crops grown directly for humans.

Then there is the land used for meat and dairy. The 20% waste that the FAO report is less than for other food products percentage wise, but meat uses so much more land area. That’s 20% of the total area of the Americas used for animals that are killed and made into food, but never eaten.

We can make a big difference in the pressure on crops and pastureland created by felling forests, just by making sure less meat gets into the household waste.

Most of that food waste is happening in the developed countries:

  • “Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).”
  • “The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).”

Think how much the pressure on land for agriculture would be reduced if we were to reduce food waste just a little.

There is food waste in the developing countries too, but there it happens at the production and storage side of things. This is not shown in that table above. It’s a similar percentage.

For poorer countries then part of the problem is cold storage. In developed countries, farmers use refrigerated lorries, but poorer countries can’t afford them. If you transport tomatoes to market over long distances in a flat truck then much of it goes rotten before it gets there. To take an example, the Punjab region of India and Pakistan is the world’s second largest producer of fruits and vegetables but loses 20-50 percent of total production.

An Indian pilot study looked at transport of Kinnow in the Punjab, a fruit that is often transported 2,500 kilometers in open trucks all the way from Abohar in the Punjab to Bangalore in southern India, with loses as high as 32 percent. The pilot found that the payback period for pre-cooling equipment is only two years and for the refrigerated trucks just over four years.

Slide from this presentation.

This reduces CO2 emissions as well, by 16% for the same amount of fruit sold.

Eat less meat and dairy products

Then we can also make a difference with our dietary choices.

Eating less meat in our global diet can free up a significant fraction of the area of the Americas depending on how much meat is eaten in both the countries already prosperous, and the populations that are transitioning to greater prosperity (people often eat more meat as they become wealthier). There is a lot of play for improvements here. Even a 20% reduction in meat / dairy alone would make a huge difference to the amount of land we could free up, and reducing the pressure on the most biodiverse places that remain.

This is another study they may well have used. It looks only at crops grown for animals or humans. This map shows how much of agricultural crops (e.g. maize) is grown directly for human consumption, and how much is grown to feed to animals which we then eat:

I got those details here: Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. The authors of that map and paper concluded from its analysis that if those calories were all used for human consumption instead of feeding humans, and other uses (such as biofuels) they could potentially feed approximately 4 billion extra people.

This gives a massive margin for any future food crisis

If we ever meet some global crisis with billions facing potential starvation, we could immediately free up large amounts of crops, and feed up to four billion extra people, just by rationing, such as was used in the UK during World War II.

We don’t even need to convert pasture to crops to do this. Just grow less of the crops that we grow only to feed animals.

It’s not likely to come to that, but I hope this thought can help people who panic that we won’t be able to feed everyone and will go extinct or our society collapse, through global starvation. Nonsense! Not on any scenario.

For more on this, see my Debunked: Soon we won’t be able to feed everyone because the world population is growing so quickly

Feeding nine billion people

In 2050 we may have two billion more people, but more than that, the growing economies of China and India will want to eat more dairy products, eggs and meat, putting more pressure on agriculture to feed all those chickens, cows and other animals. Research in 2011 projected that we may need to double food production by 2050 to feed everyone.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects a 70% increase in demand. Either way it is a lot of extra food.

Jonathan Foley who directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota presents a five step program to do this

  • Step One: Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint - about the destructive impact of expanding into biodiverse tropical rainforests etc.
    [though surely not a problem expanding into deserts]
  • Step Two: Grow More on Farms We’ve Got

    We have really low yields in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe and improved farming practices could boost yields in these places several times over.

    There is a map here where you can explore places where yields can improve

Interactive version of this map in: Feeding 9 Billion - National Geographic

  • Step Three: Use Resources More Efficiently:

    There they make a point that the original green revolution involved high levels of fertilizer and intensive and non sustainable use of water and fossil-fuel based chemicals. Instead we need custom fertilizers tailored to soil conditions, organic farming, which greatly reduces water and chemicals with cover crops, mulches and compost, and more precise irrigation such as subsurface drip irrigation.
  • Step Four: Shift Diets:

    Finding ways to switch to less meat-intensive diets. Eliminating waste, and also shifting from grain-fed beef to pasture-raised beef could free up substantial amounts of food.
  • Step Five: Reduce Waste

    Consumers in developed world could reduce this by serving smaller portions, eating leftovers and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets to develop measures to reduce waste.

These five measures could more than double the world’s food supplies. It would also dramatically cut their environmental impact.

See: Feeding 9 Billion - National Geographic

Improving crop yields

We can make a rather huge difference by improving crop yields, especially, a new “Green revolution” in Africa which has the lowest crop yields of the world. That is because the green revolution which made such a difference to crop yields in Asia, Europe and the Americas in the 50s through to the 70s largely bypassed Africa which continues to use unimproved crops and low yield methods of irrigation and agriculture. It can’t just import methods from the rest of the world, but needs local solutions adapted to their specific needs and crops, including work on crop improvement for Africa.

This chart shows how big the gap is between the African countries and the top yielding countries like China, the US, and top of the list UAE and Kuwait in cereal yields per hectare.

Yields and Land Use in Agriculture

There is a remarkable ten-fold difference between the yields in sub-Saharan Africa and the yields in the US and China.

If we can do the same for Africa that we have already done in other places like India this will make a big difference for food security. That’s the motivation behind the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). See also AGRA

Population may well level off by 2100, perhaps as early as 2050

Meanwhile our population is set to level off at 11 billion by 2100 with the middle of the range projections, and 9 billion by 2050 with more optimistic projections. That is because of the way birth rates fall due to prosperity, not scarcity. Indeed we have already almost reached peak child. The population continues to grow because we are living longer.

When will the world reach 'peak child'?

Our population is growing still mainly because we are living longer, between ten and twenty years longer than 50 years ago (sometimes more than twenty years longer in the poorer countries).

This shows life expectancy at birth in 2015

And fifty years ago in 1965

In China the life expectancy increased by 26.6 years from 1965 to 2015, in India by 23.9, and in the entire world, by 18.1 years.

You can explore the map an any individual countries or regions intereactively here: Life expectancy

Though we may not reach peak population this century, most parts of the world have a good chance of stabilizing before then, especially the more developed countries. The least developed countries are the ones that would get most population growth. The most rapid growth is in Africa in the projections. You can see a break down for each region of the world here,

Older figures from 2014. Most of the population growth is in Africa by the end of the century by these figures, with everywhere else leveling off by then, the least developed countries are the ones that grow most rapidly, so that's a reflection of the situation in Africa

Those projections I gave are the ones for the UN population division. You can explore their projections for individual countries here

World Population Prospects - Population Division - United Nations

The background to the study which is the basis for the latest UN population division projections is here: World population to keep growing this century, hit 11 billion by 2100

Some researchers think these figures are too large. It assumes Africa developing as high a population density as China - is that likely?

Indeed, China has a fall in population for middle of the range estimates now, a fall from over 1.4 billion in 2030 to not much over 1 billion by 2100:

That of course is partly because of their (now discontinued) one child policy. The blue dash dot lines there are not predictions, but the result of adding or subtracting half a child to average birthrates. Even at 95% confidence, its population peaks before 2050.

But India also has a population likely to peak in the next few decades with the middle of the road projections, though with a 5% chance of it continuing to rise after 2100 and a 5% chance of a steep decline to under a billion people.

Some countries would have an even higher density in their projections. For instance they project an increase of Nigeria’s population from 0.2 billion to not far off 0.8 billion, two thirds of the population of India in less than a third of its area. A population density much higher even than India. And the upper limit of their projection for Nigeria here has more than the population of India into less than a third of its area. How likely is that?

World Population Prospects - Population Division - United Nations (select Nigeria)

There are signs already of the younger population having lower birth rates. If you factor in changes due to higher levels of education, the result can be anywhere between 6.9 and 12.6 billion by 2100 according to another study. See The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: Population scenarios by age, sex and level of education for all countries to 2100

This may possibly be the study Almut is using when she said lower estimates have the population peak at less than 9 billion by 2050, their conclusion was:

  • Future fertility and hence population growth will depend on female education.
  • In the median assumptions scenario (SSP2) world population will peak around 2070.
  • By 2100 world population ranges from 6.9 (SSP1) to 12.6 billion (SSP3).

Either way, things are actually looking brighter than one might think. Which isn't to say it will be easy, but there is no reason why we have to ruin ecosystems on Earth.

A soft limit - could feed billions more people

Another way of looking at this. The world average is 6 people fed per hectare. China can support 8.1 people per hectare. The US, with more efficient methods of agriculture, feeds 5.4, but that increases to 16 if they fed people directly instead of animals and other uses such as biofuels (from Yields and Land Use in Agriculture).

This is still just talking about crops grown to feed animals, not pasture.

The US alone could feed an extra 1 billion people if the cattle food was used instead to feed people directly.

So, for a rough calculation, if that was done worldwide, if we increased that 6 to 16, that means 7.7*16/6 = 20 billion people could be fed from the same land, using more efficient conventional agriculture on a mainly vegan diet with a much smaller component of animal products (similar to the diet in Thailand, say).

This is using only the land we already use for agriculture and it only uses conventional agriculture.

That is not taking account of the food waste. Reduce the food waste and you could feed many billions more.

Even that is nowhere near the limit. The Russians with their BIOS-3 system intended for space colonies were able to grow 95% of the food we need, on a vegan diet, from only 30 square meters per person, using plants that crop within 30 days, a “culture conveyor” of two to twelve crops at different stages simultaneously, and hydroponics / aeroponics.

That would feed getting on for 400 billion people from the same area of land we use today. Add in sea steading, growing crops on huge floating platforms in the open ocean, and we have enough space for four new planets, self sufficient ones, leaving the marine ecosystems untouched.

There is no way that we need any of this to feed eleven billion people, but it shows that the limit is a very soft one, up to perhaps a trillion or more if we put the work into it that is needed to feed so many. I’ve put more details here in a comment.

We don’t need to worry about running out of space to feed everyone.

For more on this, see my Debunked: Soon we won’t be able to feed everyone because the world population is growing so quickly

Not going to lead to mass starvation or civilization collapse in any circumstances

If we ever had some kind of crisis where by mismanagement and lack of planning lots of people were starving there is one easy solution.

In the UK in world war II, my parents’ generation had meat rationing. That’s because Hitler was blockading our ports and we had to produce as much food as we could from the area of the UK alone.

This is the worst case for our future, though it is surely not going to come to this:

WWII Food Rationing A shopkeeper cancels the coupons in a British housewife's ration book for the tea, sugar, cooking fats and bacon she is allowed for one week. Most foods in Britain are rationed and some brand names are given the designation "National". from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

There were exemptions for members of the armed forces, and miners in the case of WWII, people who needed to keep super fit and back then they thought meat was necessary. Apart from that, everyone had to get by with only 4 oz of meat a week for bacon and ham and the equivalent of two pork chops for all other forms of meat. My parents generation survived and got used to it.

It’s not likely it comes to that because we can feed billions more by improving crop yields mainly in Africa, and feed billions more people by eliminating food waste and all the other measures covered here.

However it may be reassuring to those of you who are easily scared to know that we have this as a fallback.

Even 20 billion is not a hard limit - space colony agriculture and sea steading

Incidentally, though none of the studies say this, we could get far higher even than that with the most efficient methods of agriculture known, devised for space colonies.

The Russians in the 1960s through to 70s developed a sytem they called BIOS-3 for space colonies using hydroponics, aeroponics, artificial lighting and conveyor farming and plants with a short cropping cycle of only one month.

Modern artificial lighting using LED’s is far more efficient than the lighting they used because it only needs to supply red and blue light (vegetation reflects away green light) and because it produces light from electricity far more efficiently.

Similar ideas are now used in cities in “vertical farms”. This is how they do it in San Francisco in a project called Aerofarms. It is an old idea that uses much less water. They also need no pesticides or herbicides.

Click to watch in YouTube

The Russians needed only 30 square meters of growing area per person to sustain the crew indefinitely, in the BIOS-3 experiments in the early 1970s onwards. They tested this for several months, and with a one month cropping cycle that was enough to show the idea could work indefinitely.

They did that using hydroponics, aeroponics and a "conveyer belt system" of rapidly growing crops that crop within a few weeks. The crops were grown on a culture conveyor with 2 to 10 plantings of different ages simultaneously.

"Wheat plants of various ages showing the "conveyor" approach that was used in the BIOS experiments, Young wheat plants are in the foreground, with more mature plants toward the back. The aisle between benches is narrow (to leave as much space as possible for the crops). The post, with some environmental sensors attached, further obstructs the aisle. Crew members planted various herbs and other special plants in the corner and next to the wall to the left, space that would otherwise be wasted." photo from here

They grew wheat, sedge-nut, beet, carrots, and other plants, for a total of ten crops. The aim of course is to grow a lot of food quickly in a small area. So they focused on plants that crop quickly,. They also used aeroponics (roots that are misted with water vapour together with the nutrients necessary for plant growth) and hydroponics (roots in solutions of nutrients).

With just 30 square meters growing area per person, they reduced daily requirements of dry food from 924 to 208 (by weight), so producing 77.5% of their food by weight (they only give figures for dry food). They produced 40-45% of their food from 13 square meters.

If we fed everyone using a similar system to BIOS-3, we could feed hundreds of billions of people from the land we already use for agriculture, and even more if we expanded to seasteading.

The Seasteading Institute | Opening humanity's next frontier

Some Japanese are exploring an idea for floating cities which they hope to build by the mid 2020s:

Click to watch in YouTube

Japan seems to have more than its fair share of huge megaprojects that never come to anything, but on the other hand if anyone can do it they probably can :).

There’s more interest in seasteading with sea level rise. The French Polynesian islands showed some interest in a Seasteading villge though not sure it will happen:

Blue Frontiers

And one enthusiast has built his own very tiny seasteading actually in international waters. His team were early adopters of bitcoin and paid for it from bitcoin wealth:

Click to watch in YouTube

First Seastead in International Waters Now Occupied, Thanks to Bitcoin Wealth –

Four fifths of the surface of our planet is ocean, so if we could live on the sea, in more or less self contained habitats, as with the ideas for Mars, that's be like finding four new planets to live on.

Isaac Arthur has a nice video about sea steading riffing on many possible ways it could develop.

Click to watch in YouTube

We don’t need any of this to feed eleven billion people, but it shows that the limit is a very soft one, up to perhaps a trillion or more if we put the work into it that is needed to feed so many.

Can feed everyone and it is a political and social decision - do we do it sustainably or non sustainably?

We don’t need to worry about running out of space to feed everyone.

The main thing is whether we do it sustainably or non sustainably. If we do it non sustainably we end up with a world with more and more areas of biodiverse forest cut down. If we do it sustainably we end up with a world with more and more areas of degraded soil and deserts converted back to lush vegetation and agriculture.

There are no technological limitations here. The choices are social and political.

Sometimes people say we are going to run out of minerals, water, or energy, rather than the ability to grow food.

That’s not true either, see the second half of my Debunked: Soon we won’t be able to feed everyone because the world population is growing so quickly

A million species threatened - but we can save them - and there are many millions not threatened and of least concern

Especially with the headlines about “a million species threatened with extinction”, it’s important to know for the easily scared - that we do not risk extinction of all animals, or all trees, or plants, etc.

I am adding this as an extra editorial comment here for the easily scared which they didn’t make in the presentation.

There are many that are of least concern such as ourselves. Our domestic animals, garden plants, domestic insects, we aren’t facing a risk of a world without dogs or sheep :). We also have seed banks that preserve many of the world’s species of plants even if they go extinct in the wild.

Click to watch in YouTube

They shared this image from the “Red List”:

Species assessed as Extinct in the Wild (Black, EW), Critically Endangered (Red, CR), Endangered (Orange, EN), Vulnerable (yellow, VU) Data Deficient (gray, DD), Near Threatened (lime green, NT) and Least Concern (green, LC).

Naturally enough humans are in the “Least Concern” category, we are not at risk of extinction. Summary Statistics from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Notice not just the red, orange and yellow, the endangered, threatened and vulnerable, but also the lime green near threatened and the green, of least concern. We are not headed to a world without nature on any scenario.

There the way the species are assessed is complex, with several ways each one can be classified, let’s just look at the population and chance of extinction

Here, when it says e.g. “within 10 years or three generations” that means, whichever is longer, ten years or three generations, where for long lived creatures (e.g. Greenland sharks with a lifespan of 500 years or so) then it’s up to 100 years instead of the number of generations given.

  • Critically endangered - 50% chance of extinction in the wild within 10 years or three generations , or less than 50 mature individuals.
  • Endangered - 20% chance of extinction in the wild within 20 years, or five generations, or less than 250 mature individuals
  • Vulnerable - 10% chance of extinction in 100 years, or population size less than 1000 mature individuals.
  • Near threatened - not in any of those but close to qualifying, or likely to in the near future.
  • Least concern - doesn’t qualify for any of them.

So, they don’t actually have to have any assessed percentage risk of extinction to count as threatened. A population of 1000 mature individuals in a stable population would count as vulnerable, because there are so few of them. There are other ways they can be threatened including being in a fragmented or geographically small area. Details here.

So,with the red (critically endangered), orange (endangered) or yellow (vulnerable) none of them mean inevitable extinction. Indeed that’s the whole point in this report we can stop and reverse this. There have been many successes, for example, the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) previously listed as Endangered is now down-listed to Vulnerable (Good news for Giant Panda) and the humpback whale from vulnerable to least concern in 2008. (IUCN Red List) and many others.

Click to watch in YouTube

Humpback whale on road to recovery, reveals IUCN Red List - our grandchildren will still have a world with the magnificent humpback whale, giant panda and other species we saved from extinction.

Indeed we are lucky to have a world that is particularly species diverse, because of the separated continents. There have been times in the past when everything was a single supercontinent and so, fewer species.

Although we are sadly losing many species, nearly all regions of the world now have have more species than they had a hundred years ago. It doesn’t stop it from being bad, but if you look at the biological resources available in any country, we actually have more diversity of species in most countries than we had before the recent effects of humans.

That is an insight from Chris Thomas who has some interesting and provocative ideas about this:

Click to watch in YouTube

The continents were bunched up together through all three of the dinosaur eras from the triassic through to the jurassic through to the Cretaceious. Constant warmth. No icebergs anywhere:

Relative positions of the continents during the time of the dinosaurs. It was a world which didn’t really know winter, especially since the planet was also warmer than now, basically tropical. Where Did Dinosaurs Live?

We can stop those million species going extinct.

But even if all those species did go extinct, a quarter of all mammals, 40% of amphibians etc, our world would still probably be more species rich on the whole than a single island supercontient.

However we are blessed with a far more biodiverse world than a single continent Earth, so of course we should do the best to preserve all this biodiversity, and we can benefit greatly from doing that.

For more about this, see my

Not too late, but need for decisive action

It’s not too late but we need to start acting now. We have a special opportunity for decisive action in the Convention on Biodiversity summit in Beijing, China next year.

Encourage the good actors

As well as opposing the vested interests, another thing they talked about was that we need to find a way to discourage bad actors and encourage good actors. I.e. not just remove the bad subsidies but add good ones that encourage sustainability as well as regulation.

Here again there is much cause for optimism. Many businesses are good actors already. We can do this, all working together, the companies themselves putting pressure on the bad actors, and governments, and consumers. Eduardo Brondizio gave the example of palm oil:

In many cases businesses have frankly been in opposition to regulations but when they work outside of government regulations as has been done for a number of commodities such as through the roundtable for sustainable palm oil, then they can work together to raise standards such that the bad actors within an industry are not pulling down the rest. Palm oil has a really bad name and it's because there are some really bad actors, but there are also some good actors there.

The webcast

The webcast itself is here:

Click to watch in YouTube

(English version)

The summary for policy makers and other documents from the media report are here

Notes on the webcast

I took some notes while it was going on and this next section is based on those notes together with the tweets featured in their news feed at the time - I have checked the notes with the transcripts of the entire conference.

The conclusions are alarming but it also gives the world a real message or hope. They don't want people to feel discouraged. We have not lost the battle because nature can prevail, and everyone can contribute and this is very much the message.

The goal for all of us to elevate the topic of biodiversity at top of agenda.

One of the key points was that one about the need for governments to overcome vested interests. There are hard decisions for governments to take. They need to change:

  • Fossil fuels energy incentives.
  • Transportation subsidies.
  • Agricultural subsidies for production.

And instead have incentives to promote an integrated approach with sustainability.

The summary for policy makers goes into this in more detail, in section B5. Here I have lightly paraphrased it (as it is written in a rather formal way that can be a bit hard to read):

Our economic incentives so far have generally favoured expanding economic activity, and often environmental harm, over conservation or restoration. When these are changed to incentives that take consideration of the multiple values of ecosystem functions, and of nature’s contribution, this leads to better ecological, economic and social outcomes.

Local, national, regional and global governance have all improved outcomes in this way by supporting policies, innovation and the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies, introducing incentives in line with the value of nature’s contribution to people, increasing sustainable land/sea-use management and enforcing regulations, among other measures.

These harmful incentives affect such areas as fisheries, aquaculture, agriculture (including fertilizer and pesticide use), livestock, forestry, mining and energy (including fossil fuels and biofuels). They are often associated with land/se use change and overexploitation of natural resources as well as inefficient production and waste management.

Vested interests may oppose removing these subsidies or introducing other policies. But policy reforms to deal with the causes of environmental harm have the potential to both conserve nature and provide economic benefits, when the policies are based upon more and better understanding of the multiple values of nature’s contributions

The significant thing is the way the participating governments have recognized “Vested interests” that may oppose the measures to make our global economy more sustainable, and that policy forms have to go through in face of such opposition.

This is one of the things that gives us reason for optimism. It is vital that this remains a key element of our actions going forward.

As for what the policies should be, they said that we have enough international agreements, and local policies already. If more boldly applied, those ways to achieve the goals are possible. The knowledge is there.

We have advanced significantly in confronting direct drivers including increasing protected areas. But they get overwhelmed by deterioration around them.

We need to address not only the direct causes of change - but confront root causes. Incorporating responsibility in economics for the whole chain. We need to change narratives too. It is still normal to consider biodegradation and inequality as inevitable - and we need to turn that around.

There are many ways to move towards sustainable fisheries. Also on land, fresh water and oceans are interdependent.

It’s the same with climate change, there are trade offs if we focus just on carbon, and we need to implement the solutions in ways compatible with the social and environmental context.

We need positive incentives to move away from harmful developments. We need to reform the economic system towards sustainable policy. To steer away from the paradigm of economic growth as the end, rather than as a means of a better quality of life for all.

We have been trying to confront these societal issues for several decades and there are many successful examples now at both the local and international level.

Transformative changes are happening already at many levels (up to whole countries). But this is not enough without bolder action and commitment to align our efforts. These actions are urgently needed, to avoid the situation where nature will not serve us as it has served us so far.

In short, we need to eliminate incentives harmful to environment, and incorporate the value of natural capital.

And the private sector have an important role here too.

This is something we can do. We have had major change like this before, with the Montreal agreement on CFC’s and ozone, transformed an entire industry through individuals, businesses and international co-operations together. We have to do the same with biodiversity and nature services.

As individuals we need also to assert this as our right and heritage.

People are really good at getting things done

This is the complete quote from Kate Brauman.

And to bring this back around to the question about climate change interventions one of the things that we see consistently in this report is that people are really good at working with nature to do the specific thing they want. To grow crops or harvest timber, and we are absolutely capable of working with nature to sequester carbon to mitigate climate change.

But another incredibly important message we see here is that there are trade-offs and there are possibilities for synergies. So that when we don't pay attention to the wide range of benefits that nature provides to the life-support systems, the water, the air, the non-material benefits then we get things wrong and we don't do the job we want to do to be successful.

And we can do that, so there's quite a lot of hope moving forward to take into account all of these different benefits, and get that climate change mitigation that we need as well as other benefits with it.

We are really good at getting things done, we know very well how to grow crops. We can also do that for carbon sequestration. So, we also have to apply this ability to get things done to fixing the natural world and biodiversity.

The summary for policy makers puts it like this, section D:

Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.

I will paraphrase the rest of that section:

Those goals include food, water, energy, health and human well-being, mitigating and adapting to climate change and conserving and sustainably using nature.

They can be achieved sustainably by using existing policy instruments, improved and rapidly deployed, and new initiatives that are more effective at enlisting individuals and collective action for transformative change.

A fundamental structural change is needed because the current structures often are indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and inhibit sustainable development.

Such fundamental changes of course can expect opposition by those who have an interest in preserving the status quo. But this opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.

If this is done, including supporting indigenous people and local communities at the local level, then the new frameworks for private sector investment and innovation, and supportive policies including long range multi-sector planning can transform both public and private sectors and achieve sustainability locally, nationally, and globally.

The key to this is to review and renew environment-related international goals and targets based on the best available scientific knowledge, and widespread adoption and funding of conservation, ecological restoration and sustainable use actions, by all actors, including individuals.

(paraphrase of selected material from the start of section D)

I.e. we all have a role to play in this including at the individual level.

Drivers of change

The five drivers of change in nature:

Since the 70s we have more food, and more energy than ever before but at a price. We have been undermining nature's capacities and ability to maintain itself. Also undermining nature's ability to provide for the future.

Of these five, climate change is projected to become more important in the future. They explain this in more detail in the summary for policy makers.

  • A warmer drier climate will reduce productivity in many places, but the rising atmospheric CO2 will increase productivity and help with woody vegetation cover especially in semi-arid regions.
  • Fish populations are expected to move towards the pole, with local extinctions in the tropics. There might not be much of an increase in biodiversity in polar regions because of the acidification of the oceans and the melting ice.
  • Along coastlines the sea level rise, increasing extreme climate events and coastal development will fragment coastal habitats.
  • Corals expected to decline by a further 70-90% at global warming of 1.5°C, and by more than 99% at 2°C causing massive bleaching episodes with high mortality rates

We need to slow down extinction of species. Slow down conversion of forest and grassland to agriculture. We need to transform our agriculture so that they produce the food we need in an agro-ecological way with less chemicals.

Need for collaboration and solidarity - including local communities and indigenous people

She stressed the importance for collaboration and solidarity. Looking forward we have the 2019 G7 summit, then the 2020 congress IUCN and COP15 in China.

The UNESO speaker talked about their work on fresh waters, oceanography, indigenous knowledge, and to bring more into their educational systems. Also national heritage sites and biodiversity sites of UNESCO and sustainable

Worldwide UNESCO protects an area the size of China. This could be further extended through restoring rights.

At least a quarter of the global land is owned / managed / traditionally occupied by local people.

35% of global protected areas overlap with areas managed by local communities. Including a significant share of agricultural biodiversity. Nature is deteriorating less rapidly in those areas. But they also have declines. From a compilation of over 450 indicators used around the world by local communities, 72% of those show signs of decline. Other drivers have increasingly pressured those areas through land-use change, extractive industries, infrastructure expansion, and other factors.

Tackling the drivers with levers

These are some of their findings as an info-graphic:

The summary for policy makers goes into the multi actor government interventions we can use as levers to change what happens (section 31).

Some of the ways this can be done include (section 35 of the summary for policy makers):

  • Well managed and connected protected areas and other effective area based conservation measures;
  • Reduced impact logging
  • Forest certification
  • Payment for ecosystem services, among other instruments and reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation
  • Support for ecological restoration
  • Effective monitoring including public access and participation as appropriate
  • Addressing of illegal activities
  • Effective implementation of multilateral environmental agreements and other relevant international agreements by their parties
  • Promoting sustainable biodiversity based food systems.

Tipping points

One question was about tipping points. This is not a climate tipping point, but rather, when an ecosystem tips over from one to another. Ecosystems aren’t going to vanish. Even the corals will be replaced by something else, boulder corals, or seaweeds, or sponges or something. Not so species rich, but still an ecosystem. Even a desert, after desertification, is a tipping point to a new ecosystem with its own unique forms of life.

Some systems can tip relatively soon.

They predict major regime shifts in coral reefs in next decade, extremely rapid unless addressed.

Also large changes in arctic / polar systems. Increasing more than any other place. Major consequences. Covered by ice or ice beneath in soils, melting, with tremendous consequences.

Techy aside about permafrost

They didn’t go into this in any detail, but actually on the 3°C path we are on a high level review of the permafrost came to the conclusion that the melting permafrost can be a carbon sink. What’s more, this depends on drainage and irrigation. Well drained dry soil that grows trees and vegetation can take up more carbon than it releases. Meanwhile damp peat bogs also are strongly carbon negative. Methane only forms with decomposition in damp conditions and if this happens sufficiently deeply below the surface, all or most of the methane is absorbed or taken up by life on its way to the surface. For more on this see

Perhaps this is another situation, where we can find ways to make the emerging melted permafrost biodiverse while at the same time encouraging carbon sequestration? By either drainage for trees and vegetation, or irrigation, for peat bogs, we could make a significant difference here.

Then there are the wetlands with 85% severely altered.

Then there’s the interconnections of tipping points. These are vivid and important illustrations. But the most important point - all understood as symptoms of the same thing.

It is like a serious disease. None of the symptoms leads to the diagnosis on its own. It’s the whole consistent picture, the way they interact, that’s good or bad news.

So, the most important message is not so much the particular cases but that everywhere in the world there’s the same trend. There are cures and we have the choice of whether or not to take them.

Some regions are much more impacted. They single out the global south. South America, Africa, some areas of South Asia.

But the other part is that our world is increasingly interconnected so what happens in one region consequences in all the others. This is not just qualitiative, they have evidence in the report.

Trade offs and possibilities of synergies. A lot of hope going forward we can do it.

Rapid evolution and antibiotic resistance

This was a question about evolution of antibiotic resistance. They talked about the overwhelming evidence evolution really fast under human pressures. Not just antibiotic resistance. Also increase resistance of weed to insecticides. Mammals, fungi, birds adapting. We are directly reconfiguring the evolutionary process itself.

Need for a circular economy

We need to implement a circular economy (an economic system aimed at minimizing waste and making most of resources).

Circular economy - Wikipedia

There are examples of this that show we can take a different path which considers the impacts.

Their scenarios

They give very little detail about the scenarios, but one interesting table. Their three scenarios are:

  • "Global Sustainability" - proactive environmental policy and sustainable production and consumption with low greenhouse gas emissions
  • “Regional Competition” - strong trade and other barriers and a growing gap between rich and poor with high emissions
  • "Economic optimism" - rapid economic growth and low environmental regulation with very high greenhouse emissions

In all the scenarios, then material contributions from nature increase (purple), species diversity (brown) decreases and regulating contributions from nature (green) decrease. However, there is a lot of variability between the regions and between the scenarios.

Biodiversity (change in species richness across a wide range of terrestrial plant and animal species at regional scales; orange bars),

NCP = Nature’s contributions to people

Material NCP = things we extract such as food, timber etc (food, feed, timber and bioenergy; purple bars)

Regulating NCP = the way nature helps us such as pollination, soil protection, pest regulation etc (nitrogen retention, soil protection, crop pollination, crop pest control and ecosystem carbon; purple bars).

This is the first rigorous global-scale model comparison of effects on biodiversity, and the nature’s material and regulating contributions to nature.

IPBES Chair Robert Watson:

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture. The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

“The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference , but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘ transformative change ’ , nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals . By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system - wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values . ”

“The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good ”

Videos from co-chairs and lead authors

Here are some videos from the co-chairs and lead authors summarizing the message:

Click to watch in YouTube

One of the ways in which our report I think is unique and it's important is that we put all the evidence in one place to say to policy makers look we cannot keep going like this the evidence is overwhelming. And what I would say to normal citizens is to say that you have the right for a fabric of life which is healthy and in working order and you have to fight for it

Click to watch in YouTube

The key message of our report is that we have to really go for transformative change on a global scale but also on regional scales. So transformation is the essence. Well business as usual will surely not lead to this complete the let's say happiness or joy of life in the end - you lose a lot of our biodiversity and I think we may even lose lots of options for the future so our kind of security system for the future is at risk if we follow business as usual.

Click to watch in YouTube

So why are we still losing nature at such a horrific pace, when we've we have 50 years of experience with international nature conservation policy. Apparently we're doing something wrong. And it turns out that in the report we show that if we focus on nature conservation purely on nature conservation we're doing okay but it's the true societal challenges that we have failed to address successfully. T


So that means that our economic structures have to change governments need to reflect on what impacts some subsidies have. We need to make sure that environmentally sound products are actually able to compete with environmentally less sound products, So we need to make it as easy as possible for consumers and citizens to have environmentally sound lives.

Click to watch in YouTube

What the the Global Assessment represents for me and what I find it really cool and unique is that it tells a story.

We look back during the past decades, we understand what we've been doing what will have been the advances and the setbacks that we have and we look forward in a reflexive way if we continue to do business as usual we know the consequence.

But it also shows that there are options in which we can take to shift.

... We need to change that narrative we need to make economic growth as a means not an end. Quality of life is the end we've all right there is hope ... People need to feel empowered. Policymakers need to view empower everyone contributes it. We have the tools to implement policy to make a difference on people's lives and a difference on the global environment

Click to watch in YouTube

... So with scenarios what we are trying to do, we are exploring how the world could look like in 2050 or even in 2100. Fortunately the scenarios where we try to drive a more sustainable future, more equitable distribution of resources, is a much better outcome in terms of both still providing food, to feed and fibre to everyone on this planet, but at the same time decoupling that increasing provision of ecosystem services from the destruction of nature. We can do it if we choose to operate along those more sustainable distributions of resources.

Click to watch in YouTube

One of the things that I think is most important that we have shown in this assessment is that there's so much connection between what happens on land and what happens in the water.

… We think that there's lots of potential for synergies so putting into practice different kinds of things like agricultural practices that can both cause productivity on the landscape, but also help with things like water quality and filtering water.

We know that there are many businesses who benefit from the contributions of nature of all kinds s… all the businesses that depend on freshwater resources on soils on pollination. Even on things like the production of medicines about 70% of cancer medicines actually either come from nature or are inspired by natural products.

So much that we can do as individuals and no one thing will solve everything but by changing our habits everything from our eating habits and our consumption to the way that we interact with our own governments. That we as individuals need to recognize how important nature is and we need to make sure that those who represent us recognize that also.

Click to watch in YouTube

The key message of our report is that we have to really go for transformative change on a global scale but also on regional scales. So transformation is the essence. Well business as usual will surely not lead to this complete the let's say happiness or joy of life in the end - you lose a lot of our biodiversity and I think we may even lose lots of options for the future so our kind of security system for the future is at risk if we follow business as usual.

Click to watch in YouTube

We are losing biodiversity faster than ever before in humanity's history, and that's catastrophic for the species and ecosystems affected, but it's also really bad news for people human society depends upon healthy ecosystems we need them for our survival.

The good news is that it's not too late to implement responses that are required but it's going to take transformative change.

... We need to see transformative change that's fundamental system-wide reorganization across political technological and economic factors. It's things like reforming perverse incentives so subsidies for agriculture or fisheries that make no economic or environmental sense.

Click to watch in YouTube

... One of the clearest points that came out of the scenarios and pathways analysis was that in order for us to achieve the kind of change that's necessary for biodiversity and for nature, that it's going to take examining the societies institutions in a much more careful way.

That we can't any longer just think about okay well this is how we have to do forestry differently or this is how we have to do fisheries differently without recognizing that all of those major sectors that impact biodiversity directly are driven by all kinds of different aspects of society's institutions and fundamentally derived from human demand for products and services.

Businesses have a tremendous amount of power both over governments and then more importantly over over supply chains

... It's not because I go out there and I cut down a forest is because I buy something that requires that a forest is cut down. And so because businesses really do have control over supply chains and in many cases those supply chains transcend national boundaries what that means that the businesses have a fundamentally crucial role to play in the sustainability transformation.

It becomes clear that a change is possible in supply chains and the processes of extraction or production. Then it's really incumbent upon policy makers to make sure that the standards are set at a relatively high bar. One that's achievable and one that prevents what we think of as bad actors or bad apples from spoiling the bunch right. Some of the industry has already kept up and then it's up to the governments to make it fair so that some businesses can't thrive by undercutting the environment and what it does for people

Click to watch in YouTube

Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is one of the drivers driving that change. Climate controls the ranges of species and so a changing climate can cause species to change their Geographic ranges as we've seen in many parts of the world on the land surface and in the ocean.


We know that ecosystems are currently absorbing about 25 percent of our emissions land systems. another 25 percent of our emissions are going into the oceans which is causing ocean acidification. Together that's half our emissions are not ending up in the atmosphere because of the the health of our ecosystems.

And so managing our ecosystems is going to be crucial in avoiding the worst effects of climate change. The most important thing we have to do is get our fossil fuel emissions under control and engage in the kind of transformative change that this report speaks about which is transformative changes to our energy system mostly

Click to watch in YouTube

I think the the important thing about the report is that it is very broad based in how it conveys the information so that policymakers will be able to instantly see what they will be able to do with the report in protecting nature, which means providing incentives to ensure that nature is protected and nature's services or the benefits that people derive from nature are protected


That will be individual what each government does because they will be doing it for their specific populations and that and for their citizens, but it will be very important that there is a systematic review in each country for how you protect your water supply, how you ensure clean air how you in ensure an abundant food supply and productivity in the continued economic development

Click to watch in YouTube

There are big differences between the social and economic development pathways in terms of their impacts on biodiversity ecosystem function.

Those scenarios where there's a lot of emphasis put on sustainability, so sustainable production, sustainable consumption, are much better than those scenarios … of the planet where there's an emphasis on rapid economic growth and very little governmental control of environmental impacts.

Clearly the message that comes from that is that if one follows these pure economic growth pathways with no attention to the environment, that they're gonna seriously degrade the environment, and they're not just degrading biodiversity we're also losing valuable ecosystem services. So maybe they're getting a lot of economic gain out of it but they're destroying the very basis of what sustains life on planet.

What these sustainability scenarios mean is that we cannot do business as usual there must be fairly radical transformation of a way that we produce and consume goods

Complete transcript for the press conference and the co-chairs here:

IPBES cochairs and press conference with transcripts

Media release documents here:

If my summary here has interested you I suggest you read the summary for policy makers to find out more. That is all we have for now, plus some of the materials for the press. I look forward to the full report when it comes out later this year!

In particular, check out their Table SPM.1

See also

This is about the earlier biodiversity report from the FAO:

and the IPCC one

My climate change article

And on various points:

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