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Global biodiversity in crisis - what can Germany and the EU do about it?

A group of scientists from various disciplines of biodiversity, ecology, economics, anthropology and integrated land system research has dealt with issues related to the global crisis of biological diversity. The discussion paper was prepared under the umbrella of the National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina in view of the Convention of Biodiversity (CBD) in 2020/2021 with the aim to propose options how to halt and reverse the crisis. Prof. Dr. Michael Scherer-Lorenzen from the University of Freiburg has participated in this working group.

Global biodiversity in crisis - what can Germany and the EU do about it?

A higher diversity of ecosystems and habitat heterogeneity are important cornerstones for the protection of biodiversity, especially in agricultural landscapes.

Biodiversity includes all forms of life on earth and their communities, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands or marine ecosystems. It influences and regulates fundamental processes of the Earth System such as soil formation, climate, water, gas and nutrient cycles and is therefore indispensable for securing the ecological basis of human well-being and survival. According to the scientists of the Leopoldina Group the rapid loss of the world's biodiversity has now reached a level that severely jeopardizes the economic, social and cultural livelihoods of people - to different degrees in different regions:

The current extinction rates of animal and plant species are the highest of the past 10 million years, and are gradually taking on characteristics of the five geological extinction disasters. Around 1 million animal and plant species are currently considered endangered by extinction, many of them within decades. Only a third of all fish populations in the world's oceans are in a satisfactory state. Large areas of the oceans are fished almost empty and suffer from deoxygenation, acidification, overheating and coral death. In the past 30 years, around 30% of insects worldwide and 30-80% of insects of large parts of Europe have declined. With 70 to 80 %, insects are the most species-rich of all animal groups, which play key functions in soil formation, soil fertility, pollination, or as the basis of the food chains of many higher animal species. Insect death can therefore be seen as a symptom of a serious decline in the overall biodiversity. Deforestation has reduced the global forest cover by 40 percent. The annual gross loss of wet tropical forest area in the years 2000 to 2012 alone was 49,000 square kilometers annually - more than the area of Lower Saxony - and forest losses continue to accelerate and thus contribute significantly to climate change. The contribution of intensive land use and land use changes to the loss of global biodiversity is estimated at 80%.

Main causes are: a. 80% of global deforestation is based on the conversion of forests into agricultural land, b. 70% of global fresh water consumption is for irrigation, c. 85% of the global nitrogen and phosphorus output with its harmful effects on eutrophication of land ecosystems, fresh water and oceans is based on the use of fertilizers in agriculture, d. about 300 to 400 million tons of pesticides, other agricultural chemicals and other bioactive chemicals are mainly brought into the environment by agriculture, and e. at least 23% of global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are at the expense of agriculture.

Germany alone is indirectly responsible for the deforestation of around 1 million hectares of tropical forest through the import of soybeans and shares responsibility for the dramatic losses of the rainforests in Indonesia and their orangutan populations through the import of palm oil-based biodiesel. Around 50% of arable land in Germany / Europe is used to cultivate animal feed for meat production and a further 20% is used to produce biofuels and biogas. Only about 30% of the arable land is still used to provide people with basic plant foods. This practice of land use is supported annually in Germany with 5-6 billion euros. In 2018, 36% of the grain harvest was fed to animals worldwide. In the USA, around 40% of arable land, almost all pasture land, around 50% of nitrogen fertilization and around 30% of irrigation requirements were used for beef production in 2000-2010. The total amount of the beef production only provided 7% of the US food calories.

Animal meat and milk production consumes about 70% of global agricultural land, but only produces 18% of global food calories and, in addition, is also an important climate driver: Around 14.5% (7.1 gigatons) of climate-damaging global GHG emissions come from the production of animal products, almost as much as the private car sector emits. In Germany, animal and milk production generates around 70% of GHG from agriculture.

The countries of the European Union share significant responsibility for the global biodiversity crisis not only by the decline of biodiversity within Europe itself but also by the emission of almost 10% of global GHG, the consumption of over 600,000 km² of land outside Europe for the import of agricultural and timber products and, finally, by their contribution to overfishing, eutrophication and warming of the oceans.

That is why the authors of this discussion paper consider it particularly urgent to

(a) realign the European common policy for agriculture and fisheries in terms of support for climate and biodiversity sustainability,

(b) internalization of biodiversity and climate costs of agricultural products - especially of meat - to be effectively represented in a reasonable pricing scheme, and

(c) to ensure the protection of biodiversity in the European countries and worldwide through a comprehensive network of adapted protected areas, which should cover 30-50% of the land and 40% of the oceans.

The worldwide ecological footprint of Germany and the EU demands international activities for safeguarding biodiversity such as: 1. Establish a “Biodiversity Alliance for Africa”, through which the 4 million km² comprehensive protected area system is supported within the framework of an integrative development cooperation with 4 billion euros annually. 2. Launch an action plan of the world community through which the protection of 11.5 million km² of the last untouched virgin forests on earth is financially supported with around 3.5 billion euros annually (“Virgin Forest Fund”). 3. Taking on greater financial and political responsibility towards implementation of the objectives of the “Bonn challenge” for the afforestation of 3.5 million km² of forest worldwide by 2030 as an important contribution to global climate protection and sustainable wood use.

20200523-scherer2.jpgOriginal publication:
Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina (Hrsg.) 2020: Global biodiversity in crisis - what can Germany and the EU do about it? Diskussion Nr. 24, Halle (Saale).

Prof. Dr. Michael Scherer-Lorenzen
Faculty of Biology
Institute of Biology II – Geobotany
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Tel.: 0761/203-5014

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