'Our consumption choices are driving biodiversity loss'

Humankind is decimating plant and animal species, with alarming consequences for the planet. From the UN biodiversity conference in Egypt, Cristiana Pasca explains why preserving biodiversity is key to our survival.

Biodiversity is the cornerstone of our existence — a fact many of us seem to forget in our daily lives. And biodiversity is not just about orangutans and elephants, but also the smallest living organisms in this world.

Nature and Environment | 19.11.2018

A recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report pointed to how wildlife populations have declined 60 percent globally since 1970. UN experts have warned that if we don't rapidly change our ways, we may be the next species to go extinct.

Cristiana Pasca, executive director of the CBD

Cristiana Pasca, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), talked to DW about all these issues from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the 14th annual conference of the parties (COP14) of the Convention on Biological Diversity is taking place (November 17 to 29). 

She explained that when we protect biodiversity, we also protect ourselves. 

Nature and Environment | 30.10.2018

DW: Loss of biodiversity is a main threat to our planet and us. However, it receives much less attention than climate change-related issues. Why is that? 

Cristiana Pasca: You're absolutely right — climate change is absorbing a lot of focus and political attention, and this is very good because it's a very big problem.

However, we need to be concerned not only about climate change, but in general about the state of the planet. Biodiversity is the infrastructure that supports life on Earth. We cannot function without healthy ecosystems. Climate change is just a result, it shows that the planet is no longer healthy. So further biodiversity loss causes further climate change, and further climate change causes further biodiversity loss. We are in a vicious circle.

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Read more: To save species, limit global warming

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Why do we need diversity of species?

What can be done to increase awareness about the importance of biodiversity loss?

We need to approach these topics in a holistic way. A minister of environment alone can not solve the problem of biodiversity loss. So we have to raise public awareness. People already notice the impact of climate change on their everyday life, especially in vulnerable countries such as small island states.

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With biodiversity, the impact is not as visible right now, but that doesn't mean that it's not extraordinarily dangerous. So we are trying to raise awareness that climate change and biodiversity loss have to be addressed together. 

Read more: Time running out to save the Earth's plants and animals

People are becoming more aware that products with palm oil contribute to loss of wildlife. What other daily habits put biodiversity at risk?

This is a very important question. Our consumption choices are driving biodiversity loss. We can consume less and we can be more mindful about what to consume. For example, it's important to reduce our plastic consumption. We can also reduce our consumption of red meat and dairy products consumption.

We can also think twice before buying wild animals or products made from an exotic plant. We are in the International Year of the Reef, and corals are extraordinarily sensitive to climate change, so maybe we can avoid sunscreens with chemical ingredients that end up in water and affect corals. These are just a few examples of daily choices.

Biodiversity includes every species, from microscopic organisms to trees

DW: During the COP14 biodiversity conference, several groups have proposed to create new protected areas. To what extent is this the right choice to protect biodiversity?

Protected areas are essential for biodiversity conservation, but also support many human livelihoods. Nearly half of the world's population depends on protected areas for its livelihood, including many of the most vulnerable people. 

I actually have some good news. In 2010, we set the target of increasing terrestrial protected areas to 17 percent and marine areas to 10 percent by 2020, and there is a high probability that we'll meet this target by then.

But we cannot stop there. We cannot preserve our diversity just by putting a fence around these areas and destroying everything outside of that. We need to manage all land and water in a sustainable way. It is also important to increase not only the quantity of protected areas, but also the quality of management systems. In general, we need a much more transformative approach to biodiversity. We need to consider it as limited capital. We only have one planet, and we have to treat it as such.

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Environment | 15.11.2018

Living Planet: Standing up for biodiversity at COP14

When we talk about biodiversity, we often forget to think beyond the iconic megafauna. Why is it important to also care about the "hidden" biodiversity, for instance, microbes and fungi? 

We humans are just the most evolved species, but we very much depend on nature. Nature doesn't depend on us. When we look at biodiversity, we have to see this complete picture — because each species, no matter how small, has an important role to play.

All forms of life are interconnected. We do need a change of narrative when we speak about biodiversity, we have to make sure people understand biodiversity is about all lives on the planet, including our life.

Cristiana Pasca Palmer was appointed as executive secretary of the Convention for Biological Diversity in 2017. Before that, she served as Romania’s environment minister.

The interview was conducted by Irene Baños Ruiz, and the text has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Describing the undescribed

Scientists and wildlife experts warn that the earth is facing an unprecedented extinction crisis, where thousands of species will disappear. Yet at the same time much of the world's biodiversity remains unknown to science.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

A myriad of species awaiting discovery

Fungi played an important role in greening the earth billions of years ago. Roo Vandegrift, a fungal ecologist with the University of Oregon, describes them as "the lost kingdom," given that so much is still to be learned. There are an estimated 3.2 million different species of fungi in the world; only 240,000 have been officially described.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Fungal wonderland

Vandegrift traveled to Reserva Los Cedros in Ecuador in 2014 to document fungal biodiversity. He worked with mycologist Danny Newman, who took these fantastic photographs. Los Cedros was one of the last unlogged watersheds on the slopes of the Ecuadorean Andes. The majority of fungi are found in the tropics, and Vandegrift says working in the area you are "bound to" find new species.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Oddball fungus

This is Xylobotryum portentosum, which Newman describes as an "oddball fungus." It is distantly related to the Xylaria genus, but experts are unsure into which particular fungal family it should be placed. The scientists found another Xylobotryum on their trip which they believe is new to science.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Months in the lab

The two scientists are still to finish their work on the specimens they collected. They say a day out in the field can mean months of work in the lab. Newman says there is a lack of investment in researching new biodiversity, so the pair are crowdfunding their efforts to sequence the DNA of the fungi they found.

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

No money for fungi

Given there is so much undocumented biodiversity in the world of fungi, there is a real chance that many species go extinct before they are even named — like this funky fungi that has consumed an insect. Newman says it would be logical to have a lot of research trips like theirs taking place regularly. "They are not," he says, "and there is no funding for them."

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Appetite for insects

Some of the species found are parasitic. This fungus is a member of the Hypocreales family, and begins by parasitizing and consuming insects and white flies. They then grow through the mouth of the dead insect host and begin feeding on the bamboo on which the insect once fed. This is a cross-section that shows a gelatinous interior that resembles a cross between a spiral galaxy and grape jello!

Biodiversity: The 'lost kingdom' of amazing fungi

Mining threat

Roo Vandegrift says things need to be given a name so they can be protected. The Ecuadorian government has, since 2014, opened Los Cedros to mining projects. This means the habitat could be destroyed. Newman and Vandegrift are hoping that identifying and describing species that are rare and endemic to the area will help raise awareness of the danger.

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