The battle to save our natural world

The 14th and 15th Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the UN address the urgent need to conserve and use ecosystems both on land and underwater as part of sustainable development to help save our natural world.

Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are criteria set by the UN General Assembly to monitor various aspects of human progress on climate change. With 17 SDGs to count, the UN intends for them to be met by 2030 to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”

SDG #14 pertains to the aim to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”, while SDG #15 urges the protection, restoration and promotion of the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems of our world. These two SDGs have an impact on life not just on land but in our seas and oceans too.

Our deep blue world

You may have seen some of our previous writings about the beauty and wonder to be found below the water’s surface. For example, just a few short weeks ago, we spoke with marine ecologist Carlos Duarte about the twilight zone, and how climate change is impacting this biome. Far from being just a drop in the ocean, human activity is sending ripples across our oceans. So much so, in fact, that the soundwaves of collapsing ice shelves have been recorded in ocean-based sound recording equipment, having been conveyed thousands of kilometres across the world through our oceans.

Once I was asked, what was the biggest risk to the oceans, and I replied, the biggest threat to the oceans is that we give up on the vision of a healthy ocean.

Prof. Carlos Duarte – marine ecologist

Our oceans and seas are a vital food source for sustaining life on land. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one billion people rely on fish and other seafood as part of their diet worldwide. If the fish and other sea fauna suffer as a result of climate change, so will the communities which rely on them for food. Fish are especially important as part of the human diet, for providing fatty acids such as Omega-3, necessary for maintaining a healthy body for longer. Overfishing is one of the ways we are jeopardising this delicate balance in the oceans, but as we reported earlier this year, plans are afoot to revolutionise the production of in-vitro fish meat.

Imagine the positive impact lab-grown fish could have on fish stocks: fewer fish caught in the wild, thanks to the innovation of cell cultures being grown to produce food products still derived from healthy fish muscle tissues – all without having to scour the waters for a catch to begin with. Wildtype, for example, is already producing sushi-grade salmon out of its San Francisco lab, using plant cell structures to develop ‘fillets’ over time. Ventures such as these offer a tangible example of how fish food of the future need not plunder the oceans, but instead come from a laboratory.

Not only that, but we have written about the impact of rising temperatures on the forests of the ocean, coral reefs. In a world where the global temperature rises 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, 70 per cent of our coral reefs could face mass bleaching events. This 1.5-degree rise is the intended temperature rise cap as laid out currently under the Paris Agreement to prevent long-lasting environmental damage. However, a world where temperatures rise by more than two degrees could mean coral reefs go extinct entirely, a relic of a more biodiverse era, lost to us forever.

During COP26 in Glasgow, a blog was published by The Economist, outlining how coral reefs could turn the tide against the effects of climate change, so long as we help them thrive. According to the article, “When it comes to biodiversity, coral reefs are superstars of the ocean”, providing a habitat for 37 per cent of the world’s fish. As well as this, coral reefs are a natural form of protection against tidal waves, absorbing 97 per cent of the world’s coastal wave energy. This means for every coral reef we can protect from bleaching, billions of dollars are saved in having to build coastal defences. In effect, coral reefs have been our silent oceanic protectors, keeping coastal communities safe.

Only through commitments to reduce carbon emissions and minimise the usage of hydrocarbons can countries hope to protect such marine organisms, upon which so much depends.

The terrestrial concerns of our world

Life on land is so incredibly biodiverse that we have barely scratched the surface of what inhabits our rainforests and other corners of the world. Earth is often dubbed the ‘Blue Planet’, but owes much of its vibrancy to greenery including forests. It is estimated 31 per cent of the world’s landmass is occupied by forests, and we have previously written about how increased tree cover is essential for keeping environments rich in water and capable of sustaining other forms of life. However, the planet’s surface is changing, and such greenery is under threat from multiple angles.

Desertification is one of the clearest ways we can see profound damage to our environment on land. A lack of life and even life-sustaining water are a threat to communities and the planet at large. The Sahara is estimated to have grown 10 per cent larger since 1920, while tropical regions are estimated to be moving polewards at a rate of 48km per decade. Land is finite, and the rise of desertification risks threatening the food security of millions over the coming years. To hold back the advance of the desert, attempts are being made to re-green deserted regions such as the Sinai Peninsula.

…action must be taken on recovering the forest and not deforesting another single hectare in addition to what we have, because we have the technology to increase productivity on the land that’s already open.

Francisco Oliveira PhD – Amazon scientist

Intensive and unsustainable use of land is also apparent when you look at industries such as pastoral farming. Large quantities of fresh water are required to sustain livestock, many of whom are reared for their meat alone. This reduces groundwater levels in the land used and other issues become apparent, such as the risk of communicable diseases spreading amongst livestock. Communities dependent on this way of life could struggle, if a natural disaster such as foot and mouth disease, a flood wiped out their flock of sheep or their cows and pigs. One way to sidestep these issues is ditching the need for rearing animals for their meat to begin with. In-vitro meat solutions could be the key to producing food products with the same taste, but with a greatly-reduced impact on the planet. All it takes is a healthy culture of the necessary cells.

IUCN’s Red List

In total, 37,400 species are at risk of disappearing unless efforts are stepped up to protect them:

  • 26 per cent of mammals
  • 41 per cent of amphibians
  • 14 per cent of birds

Assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Red List are threatened with extinction.

Tree cover means the difference between an environment being completely arid or an oasis of life. In speaking with Brazilian conservationist Francisco Oliveira about the Amazon rainforest and the integral role it plays in regulating the hydrological cycle in its immediate surroundings. Not only that, but we also learnt that, if the Amazon rainforest were to disappear overnight, the Amazon basin would become dry and dusty, a breeding ground for wildfires, while a lack of trees would deprive the planet of a key carbon sink. That’s because the Amazon absorbs billions of tonnes of carbon each year.

Conservation of our rainforests is one of the most essential aspects of sustainable terrestrial development, as forests are key habitats for not only a rich catalogue of organisms but also a number of indigenous tribes and communities. Losing these green sanctuaries risks losing touch with a part of human culture which is more at one with nature. The value these communities possess goes far beyond anything which could possibly be counted in any currency.

Fortunately, there are signs of green shoots when it comes to sustainable development on land, certainly when it comes to flora. The forests are returning and in 2018, it was estimated that global tree cover had grown seven per cent compared to 1982 levels. However, the fate of fauna is a pressing matter of importance to the UN, which claims that 26 per cent of mammals, 41 per cent of amphibians and 14 per cent of birds assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List are threatened with extinction. In total, that means 37,400 species are at risk of disappearing unless efforts are stepped up to protect them.

Almost all countries around the world have passed legislation to prevent and control invasive species in a variety of habitats. This is a great victory for conservationists, as invasive species of flora and fauna have previously been left to run riot, damaging the biodiversity of habitats. Such damage has a significant financial impact, costing the global economy billions of US dollars in the process. One of the ways life on land can be protected as part of more sustainable development is to see credible policies presented from COP26, aimed at cracking down on deforestation.

At the conference itself, world leaders from 141 countries endorsed and released a joint statement, committing to reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030, while also aiming to ensure sustainable development of surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. This could mean, if necessary, the implementation of policies aimed at promoting more sustainable agricultural practices through incentives.

Public and private sources of investment may be called upon with increasing resolve to help promote sustainable development when it comes to forests and agriculture. Indigenous peoples could benefit from greater rights recognition, so we could be hearing more stories such as those of Nemonte Nenquimo and the Waorani tribe protecting their natural environments in the coming years.

Life on Earth is beautiful and comes in many shapes and forms, both underwater and on land. The 14th and 15th SDGs laid out by the UN emphasise the importance of protecting life not just visible to the naked eye, but the biodiversity of places we can only imagine on a daily basis.

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