Earlier this month, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its bi-annual activity Living Planet ReportAnd the Which included a contradictory statistic: Since 1970, the numbers of wild animals under control — specifically, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians — have declined by an average of 69%.
I was born in 1971, which means the world has seen a two-thirds decline since I got into it (full disclosure, I work for the WWF but was not a co-author on the 2022 report).
I’ll go deeper into how the title score is calculated and what it means below. But this post will also focus on two other major titles.
Or not: Reversing this decline will require effort from the whole of society.
And then: WMail can do this.
These headlines emphasize that while ongoing conservation efforts are key, reversing wildlife decline will require a broader and more comprehensive approach. This will include transforming how we generate energy and how we grow food.
These transformations seem like a difficult task. Transitions aren’t simple or automatic, right. But first, they are transformations that we need to make in any way, and while they are essential to restoring wildlife, they are also essential to human health, safety and well-being.
Second, they are achievable, as evidenced by the transformation of energy systems already underway.
The disturbing findings in the Living Planet Report derive from Living Planet Index (LPI), a set of statistics developed by the Zoological Society of London. LPI integrates abundance data on more than 32,000 groups of vertebrates, covering more than 5,000 species.
To clarify between species and populations, consider the type of fish known as a whale shark (Rincodon type). There are whale sharks that live in the Caribbean and there are whale sharks that live in the Indian Ocean near Australia. These fish are all of the same species, but they are within distinct populations, which means that they do not interact or reproduce with each other. The LPI includes data on the abundance of 13 distinct groups of whale sharks around the world.
It also includes data on mountain gorilla abundance in Kahuzi-Bija National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bald eagles in Alaska’s Aleut Islands. The dorado catfish population in the Amazon River. Thus, the distinct population reaches 32,000. Data for all of these elements were combined to derive the Gross Living Planet Index, providing the average change in abundance for global wildlife.
You can think of the -69% LPI as comparable to the performance of a stock index, such as the S&P 500. Some individual stocks may go up, some might go down, but the S&P 500 can report a single number that reflects the overall aggregate of the market’s performance over a given period of time.
LPI can be calculated for individual continents or for specific groups of species, such as sharks, migratory fish, or those species that depend on freshwater habitats (rivers, lakes, wetlands). The LPI of the freshwater population is even more worrisome, showing an average decline of 83% since 1970.
But, as promised, let’s now focus on those other titles.
While the report’s headline is bad news, there is actually a good deal of positivity within the data. For example, the LPI trendline from North America has been relatively flat for several decades and is even moving. Globally, many populations are moving in a positive direction, including notable species such as tigers, Which has nearly tripled in Nepal in just over a decade. The population of loggerhead turtles in Chrysosho Bay in Cyprus has increased by 500% since 1999.
Many of these successes are due to focused conservation efforts by state wildlife agencies, conservation organizations, and communities, and these efforts will continue to be important. But reversing the widespread decline of wildlife will require much more than just what we normally consider conservation.
Stopping the decline – and then bending the curve back towards nature recovery – will require a community-wide approach. How we generate energy and how we grow food are two examples of key economic sectors that will need to shift in order to really bend the curve.
Energy production and use have had significant negative impacts on wildlife, including large-scale mining, oil spills, damming rivers for hydroelectric power, air pollution and climate change (scientists note that climate change is not one of the main causes of population decline yet). But that is likely to change if we do not meet our climate targets.
Food production is also a major driver of wildlife degradation, contributing to nearly 70% of the decline in biodiversity on Earth. Furthermore, food production is responsible for about 70% of the total water consumed by people, while agriculture accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
We need to transform these sectors, not just for the sake of wildlife, but also for the health and well-being of people. To keep the climate safely within the stable boundaries in which civilization has evolved will require removing carbon from energy systems, while agriculture will need to shift toward sequestering (or storing) carbon in plants and soil, rather than emitting carbon. Moreover, food systems will need to become more resilient to the vagaries of weather unleashed by an already changing climate. Food production practices and diets must evolve In order to ensure 10 billion people have access to abundant, healthy, nutritious food; We will need to tackle malnutrition in some parts of the world while tackling practices that lead to overconsumption and the health risks associated with obesity in other parts of the world.
As we transform these food and energy systems to improve the health and safety of people (and really civilization itself) we will also improve conditions for wildlife. Some of this would simply be synergistic – for example, the benefits that both people and wildlife would get from reducing air and water pollution and stabilizing the climate. In other cases, intentional design may be required to achieve multiple benefits, such as restoring forests for both carbon sequestration and wildlife habitats or wetland management to reduce flood risks and water pollution and also for the benefit of aquatic species.
And as you’re thinking, “Wow, time to take off those pink glasses,” let’s look at the last headline: we can do this.
Why optimism? Well, the process of transforming power systems is in full swing. The cost of wind and solar PV has fallen dramatically in the past decade and is now the cheapest form of electricity on the planet. Approximately 70% of new generation capacity added each year is from these renewable sources. Just a decade ago, this would have seemed like a fantasy.
In the United States, the climate and energy components were recently passed The Anti-Inflation Act is preparing to stimulate more rapid investment In wind and solar energy is accelerating the transition to electric vehicles.
This ongoing transformation in the energy sector has been brought about by the effort of the whole of society. NGOs and communities have long advocated for more sustainable energy policies and the adoption of renewable energy. Governments invested in research and development and provided tax incentives to stimulate investment. The private sector has responded to these signals with gains in technology, production and practices that have led to significant cost reductions (90% in a decade of solar).
Consider the LPI as a dashboard LED (hopefully on the EV) blinking red. In fact, it had been flashing red for a while. It’s time to respond. We know what to do because we’ve done it before, including the conservation efforts required to double the population of a large predator, or the entire community cooperation required to transform an entire economic sector.
The headline in the Living Planet Report is one of the headlines for the regression. This interest is critical, but other titles offer a realistic path to bend the curve toward restoring nature as part of a healthier and safer planet for all of us.