Let’s protect nature to protect ourselves

Let’s protect nature to protect ourselves

January 08, 2021

Let’s protect nature to protect ourselves

A study shows the importance of preserving biodiversity and ecosystems to ensure that nature can continue to contribute to our well-being in different ways

The decline in biodiversity and the functions of the ecosystem over the past 50 years has reduced nature's ability to contribute to people's quality of life. A trend that persists in many categories, despite the negative impact being partially offset by changes in technology and in economic and social conditions. These are in summary the conclusions of a recent international study in which the authors reviewed scientific literature to analyze global trends in the contribution made by nature to human quality of life over a period of time characterized by rapid economic growth and significant effects on nature around the world.

The study took into account the 18 types of contribution made by nature according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) divided into 3 categories: regulation, including pollination or regulation of ocean acidification; material, including the production of medicines, energy, materials or food and animal feed; and non -material, including the ability to be inspired by or learn from nature. 

Regional and global trends in potential contributions (how nature could affect people and their quality of life), contributions made (those actually perceived by people), environmental conditions (influenced not only by nature but also by man-made factors, such as pollution) and impacts on quality of life due to changes in nature (i.e. the contributions made translated into benefits, but also harm, to people).

A downward trend

Since the 1970s, global trends have mostly been downward. Both potential and actual regulation contributions have fallen, mainly due to the decline in biodiversity and habitat integrity. At the same time, an increase has been noted in some kinds of potential and actual material contributions, thanks above all to the growth in yields and the expansion of land dedicated to the production of bioenergy, materials, food and animal feed. However, increases in the intensity and area dedicated to production are responsible for the decline in other contributions, which sometimes include the material contributions themselves, reflecting unsustainable use, the authors write in the article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Diverging trends between social groups have instead been seen in non-material contributions.

The authors observed that drastic reductions in environmental conditions, including the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, negatively affect people's quality of life, an effect which is in some cases offset by social adaptation and human “substitutions”, which can however be imperfect and expensive. One example is improvements in public health and sanitation measures, usually not economic, which have reduced the incidence of waterborne diseases despite the fact that nature’s contribution to water filtration has decreased. 

In any case, differences have been noted between countries and regions of the world, between economic classes, ethnicities and social groups. 


From study to action

Understanding and monitoring nature's contributions can, for the authors, provide fundamental feedback that could improve our ability to manage Earth's systems effectively, fairly and sustainably. However, information is not enough. “Information is a useful input that can help trigger changes in attitudes and behavior, along with institutional and policy reform, which are necessary elements to stem declines in the biodiversity and ecosystems that are essential for the steady flow of contributions to quality of life," they conclude.

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