“We must combine conservation of nature with benefits to society”

On 6 May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) presented its report on the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services worldwide. The first such assessment since 2005, it concludes that biodiversity and ecosystem loss has reached the point where it threatens human well-being. The researchers involved recommend several urgent measures to political decision-makers. Andreas Heinimann of CDE was the one Swiss scientist who worked as a lead author on a chapter of the report.

Andreas Heinimann. Photo: Manu Friedrich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Andreas Heinimann, just months after publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on global warming, scientists are once again sounding the alarm – this time on account of species loss and nature’s declining ecosystem services. What do you consider the most important message of the IPBES report?

The report highlights the urgent need to act against biodiversity loss. Many negative trends have accelerated markedly in recent decades: Our use of nature is increasingly focused on provision of material services to humanity – above all, food and energy production – while nature’s regulating functions are rapidly diminishing. One example is loss of forests, which serve an extremely important function as carbon sinks. Meanwhile, certain non-material services – which are equally important to human beings – are also diminishing. Examples include nature’s role providing space for recreation and shaping our identities.

“Importantly, we not only describe the state of nature, but also highlight its contribution to human development”


Several regional reports on biodiversity and ecosystem services have already been published, and their conclusions were similar. What is new about the IPBES global report? What’s its added value?

The report’s value is in its collaborative production by several hundred scientists from numerous disciplines and countries in the global North and South. The process was widely recognized, including by the 132 IPBES member countries. This gives the report legitimacy – and increases the chances of translating its findings into political action. Importantly, we not only describe the state of nature, but also highlight its contribution to human development and well-being. And finally, in contrast to earlier regional reports, this report’s global perspective enabled us to emphasize the connections between various world regions.

“Pressure is rising on regions stewarded by indigenous peoples”


Which are?

We see, above all, that nature’s contributions to people are not distributed equally throughout the world, and that this inequality is becoming increasingly stark. For example, indigenous peoples currently manage 28 per cent of Earth’s land mass. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of today’s protected areas is found in these regions, and the decline of nature’s regulating and non-material services is much slower here than elsewhere. One reason for this is usually that land use is partly based on non-monetary values. But pressure on these areas is rising continuously.

In recent years, scientists have launched several initiatives demanding that 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s surface be protected to save biodiversity...

These initiatives are important because they attract media attention and raise awareness of the problem. And there is indeed a need for protection of land by means of territorial regulatory measures. But that’s not enough. Many of the causes behind declining biodiversity and ecosystem functions cannot be addressed by simply placing more land under protection. Protected areas must be interconnected, and we should also focus more on effectiveness. But the crucial point is that we must integrate nature conservation with benefits for different actors in society.

“You have to work closely with locals to ensure solutions that benefit both nature and people”


What does that mean concretely?

Take Laos: Depending on what you include, between 16 and 29 per cent of the country is protected. But we have evidence that the deforestation rate, at least in easily accessible protected areas, often isn’t much better than in surrounding areas. In other words, the protection isn’t really effective. In some cases, local populations weren’t sufficiently involved to ensure incorporation of their interests. You have to work closely with locals to ensure solutions that benefit both nature and people.

“Changes in land use currently impact nature and ecosystems more than anything else”


Climatologists have been warning us of global warming for decades – but practically nothing has been done about it. Only now are things starting to move. How much time has to pass before we realize that we must also act on land use?

We’re very glad that people are finally becoming aware of climate change. But we mustn’t forget that changes in land use – and this concerns agriculture primarily – currently impact nature and ecosystems more than anything else. In addition, climate and land use are closely linked: Global land use change is driving global warming, which in turn impacts our options for land use. So, it’s extremely important that we rapidly and growingly place land use high up on our political and social agendas.

“Science must generate more knowledge for transformation towards sustainability”


Ultimately, this means that science must also play an active role. But the IPBES report reveals that science is largely concerned with describing the increasingly critical state of the world. By comparison, studies of how nature, its “services”, and people are linked, and how such problems might be solved, remain few and far between. Does the scientific community’s self-determined orientation contribute to the malaise?

That is indeed a problem. Given the urgency and complexity of the challenges we face, we need a new orientation, a kind of “science 2.0” – one that isn’t inwardly oriented, but rather generates knowledge for changes towards sustainability. In other words, transformative research that is socially relevant. Such efforts exist – for example, at the University of Bern, which demands that science come up with solutions to socially relevant questions. But academia more broadly is not at all geared in this direction yet. What counts most towards researchers’ careers is their publications – not the extent to which their research actually helps overcome the challenges facing society.

“Switzerland also urgently needs to address its footprint in other regions of the world”


What should a country like Switzerland do now to promote biodiversity?

We face major challenges within our national borders, such as the dramatic decline in insect populations and its far-reaching consequences. Different agricultural incentives combined with changes in consumer behaviour could make a difference here. At the same time, however, more than 70 per cent of the land Switzerland uses for its consumption lies outside its borders. So we urgently need to look at where and how our footprint impacts people and nature outside Switzerland, and take measures to curb negative impacts. Territorial approaches alone no longer offer real solutions in our globalized world.

IPBES and the Assessment Reports on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an independent intergovernmental body established by member states in 2012. It aims to strengthen the science-policy interface on biodiversity and ecosystem services to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development. IPBES regularly publishes regional, subregional, and thematic assessments of the state and trends of biodiversity and ecosystem services.