Tackling global biodiversity challenge from the ground

Residents can volunteer with organisations such as the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore, which collects litter from mangroves and beaches. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report published earlier this week documents a truly alarming picture of the accelerating loss of biological diversity around the world. It concludes that the state of the environment is critical - with 75 per cent of the world's land area significantly altered by humans, and approximately one million species at risk of extinction.

More importantly, it emphasises that this potential loss of species is worrying, not merely for conservation reasons, but because biological diversity is essential for human well-being.

In the past 25 years, we have gained a much fuller understanding of our dependence upon the "ecosystem services" that plants and animals provide. For example, healthy forests help to regulate water and cool the environment, and healthy oceans provide a sustainable supply of fish.

Without these ecosystem services, we jeopardise economic growth and put the lives of future generations at risk.

The problem of biodiversity loss, as presented in the report, is one of a "tragedy of the commons" playing out on a global scale. But despite the gravity of the situation, the report's authors insist it is not too late to act.

With radical transformation of the world's legal, institutional and economic systems, it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.

To this end, the authors identify the essential next steps, which include redefining human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth, and strengthening environmental laws. Incorporating the consideration of the diverse values of ecosystem functions and of nature's contribution to people alongside economic factors has been shown to deliver better ecological, economic and social outcomes.

How should we, as individuals and societies, respond to the devastating evidence presented in this report, and the wide-reaching recommendations for action?

One understandable reaction, given the problem's magnitude, would be to conclude that it is too late and that nothing significant can be done. In view of the faltering progress towards global action on climate change, many may feel that the kind of transformative change called for in the report is simply unachievable. However, there is one important difference between action on climate change and biodiversity loss, which should be a reason for hope.

Climate change is inescapably a global problem because the carbon dioxide emitted escapes into our shared atmosphere. But biodiversity is a property of a particular ecosystem at a specific location. Therefore, local action can deliver tangible local benefits.

Indeed, there is a strong focus throughout the report to better utilise the knowledge and capacity of local communities to support and deliver improvements in biodiversity.

In the past, much of the effort towards protecting wildlife has been focused on protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves. However, as the IPBES report makes clear, changes in land and sea use are key drivers of the change in nature.

Three-quarters of the world's land area has been significantly altered by humans and, since 1992, urban areas have more than doubled. Thus, the focus of protecting biodiversity and ecosystem function must shift to the environments where people live and work. This includes urban areas, for which Singapore has a special interest.

At a national level, the Government has already been embedding the concepts of "nature's contributions to people" in its policy frameworks. The Sustainable Singapore Blueprint has helped to link sustainability efforts across all governance scales, and the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters programme aims to enhance managed water infrastructure such as reservoirs, drains and canals.

Clever urban planning, nature-based solutions and the adoption of green infrastructure design have helped to bring nature and its benefits back into the city. This is delivered at the local level by the Housing Board, which provides a Biophilic (love of living things and nature) Town Framework to guide the design and development of new housing areas. Examples of the use of green infrastructure include Kampung Admiralty, a housing area for elderly citizens that was completed in 2017, and the gardens and water features at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital that provide a "healing environment".

The National Parks Board (NParks) has initiatives such as the Nature Park Network, which is providing more habitats for wildlife, and the designation of the Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat as a nature park that is slated to open in 2022. Also, ecosystem services are included as indicators in the Singapore (City Biodiversity) Index as a measure of the city's performance with respect to the management and protection of biodiversity.

To contribute to the global research on ecosystems in cities, the Natural Capital Singapore project aims to provide a synthesis of the ecosystem services that nature provides in Singapore. Funded by the National Research Foundation under its Create (Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise) programme, it is the first assessment of natural capital for an urbanised tropical country, which is also a city state. It is an inter-disciplinary project by researchers from the Singapore-ETH Centre, the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology at NParks, with wider cross-governmental support and input.

There is a strong focus on social and cultural aspects, such as the way in which people relate to nature in a city and the importance they place on that experience. Findings will be made available to policymakers and planners to support future development. A key aim is to explore the trade-offs between development objectives and the value of nature through a new decision-support tool.

As individuals, we can do our bit for the environment by taking action at home. Research on HDB corridors has shown that Singaporeans plant a huge diversity of plants outside their homes - 231 different species were found across a survey of 135 corridors.

Planting native species at home helps to conserve natural heritage and may provide a lifeline for native birds and insects. Residents can also volunteer with organisations such as the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore, which collects litter from mangroves and beaches.

The IPBES has performed an important service in documenting and communicating the magnitude of biodiversity loss, and proposing how future loss can be prevented. International actions to change legal and economic systems will be important, but we must not wait until the necessary agreements have been reached.

Local initiatives in individual countries, cities, neighbourhoods, and homes will be essential, and may even prove the most effective means of bringing about a change in humanity's relationship with the natural world.

• Professor Peter Edwards is principal investigator of the Natural Capital Singapore project and Cooling Singapore project at the Singapore-ETH Centre. He was formerly professor of plant ecology and director of the Geobotanical Institute at ETH Zurich. Ms Justine Saunders is project coordinator of the Natural Capital Singapore project at the Singapore-ETH Centre.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2019, with the headline Tackling global biodiversity challenge from the ground. Subscribe