Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:37 pm on 4th November 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 5:37 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for the chance to address what is surely an ethical imperative: responsible stewardship of the entire natural world. Biodiversity is essential for our health, well-being and prosperity.

Energy from the sun flows through intricately structured ecosystems to give us our food, other natural resources, forests and other habitats. However, there is a spiritual value too. In the words of the great ecologist, EO Wilson:

“At the heart of the environmentalist worldview is the conviction that human physical and spiritual health depends … on the planet … Natural ecosystems—forests, coral reefs, marine blue waters—maintain the world … as we would wish it to be maintained”.

Our body and our mind evolved to live in this particular planetary environment and no other. These sentiments resonate with all conservationists. Of course, here in the UK there is widespread anxiety about the effects on wildlife of urbanisation, pesticides and so forth. There is understandably more focus on birds and cuddly mammals than on worms, insects and microfauna.

The UK is only 1% of the world’s population and an even smaller fraction of its land mass. None the less, we can have disproportionate leverage in promoting global sustainable development, which was defined in Brundtland’s classic 1987 report as meeting,

“the needs of the present”,

especially those of the poor,

“without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Against this, we have the well-known World Wide Fund for Nature’s estimate that the world is consuming natural resources at about 1.7 times the sustainable level.

However, the global response to this concern is muted, partly because those in poor countries, who are at the sharp end of the impacts, understandably have shorter horizons of both space and time. The main impediment is, of course, that natural capital does not feature in national budgets. If a forest is cut down it should be recorded as a negative contribution to GNP. Incidentally, it is fortunate that the UK’s inputs to the UN biodiversity conference in China next year are being co-ordinated by my Cambridge colleague, Sir Partha Dasgupta, who is perhaps one of the real world leaders in environmental economics.

We need to preserve diverse ecosystems. They are more sustainable and more resilient. When conditions change some minority species with different traits might get an advantage. These other species are, as it were, waiting in the wings to take over if required to do so. Sparser ecosystems cannot respond so well to changing conditions. However, changes in climate and in land use can, in combination, induce sudden changes—tipping points that amplify each other and cause runaway changes. If humanity’s collective impact on nature pushes too hard, the resultant ecological shocks could irreversibly impoverish our biosphere.

Rising and more demanding populations are putting growing stresses on the entire biosphere. We have, of course, entered the new geological era called the Anthropocene. Biodiversity is threatened when land is built on, cultivated or overgrazed, and when large areas are subdivided. These concerns are aggravated if extra land for food production or biofuels encroaches on land left for natural forests.

To feed 9 billion people in 2050 while avoiding these threats will require further-improved agriculture that is low-till and water-conserving, and GM crops, together with better engineering to reduce waste, improve irrigation and so forth. However, there will also be limits on the amount of energy available and, in some regions, severe pressure on water supplies. To feed the world we might need dietary innovations: converting insects, which are highly nutritious and rich in proteins, into palatable food, and making artificial meat instead of beef. The buzz phrase is “sustainable intensification”.

How can the UK be most effective? Regarding climate change, our Climate Change Act sets stringent targets, but even if we meet them we will reduce global emissions by only 1%. However, up to 10% of the world’s innovative ideas gestate in this country. Some of us have argued that we can amplify our leverage, as it were, on solving the climate challenge by massively enhancing research into clean energy systems so that we can accelerate their improvements and the decline in their costs. In that way, countries such as India can afford to leapfrog to a clean network rather than building coal-fired power stations.

I venture a similar argument in the context of today’s debate. If we expand and deploy our world-leading expertise in plant science, and prioritise associated engineering advances, we can substantially enhance the chance that the planet can be fed without devastating the natural world. It would be to our economic benefit in this country if we can get a lead in these key technologies. It is hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for our brilliant young biologists and engineers than using their skills to develop more efficient agriculture for the world’s rising population, without degrading the wonders and beauty of the natural world.

The most devastating consequence of biodiversity loss is extinction—destroying the book of life before we have read it. I would like to end with another quote from EO Wilson, that,

“if human actions lead to mass extinctions, it’s the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”.