WUR researchers about alarming WWF report: "We must act now"

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The Living Planet Report published by WWF on 13 October shows well-documented evidence that humanity has far exceeded our planet's safe limits. The second part of the report offers the prospect of solutions. "We need to change the root causes of environmental degradation," state Francisco Alpizar and Jeanne Nel of Wageningen University & Research in their contribution to the report.

The report paints a dark picture of the state of nature. For instance, wildlife populations – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish - have declined by 69 per cent on average in less than 50 years. Freshwater species populations worldwide have even shrunk by an average of 81 per cent. Climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, overfishing and other human activities are behind this. Especially in the world's tropical regions, the decline is proceeding at a staggering rate, the report shows. WWF is very concerned about this trend, as these geographical areas are the most biodiverse in the world. The decline in wildlife populations is greatest in Latin America and the Caribbean with a 94 per cent drop between 1970 and 2018.

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There is no time to lose in securing a nature-positive society, WWF argues. WWF is calling on world leaders at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in Montreal, Canada this December to reach a 'Paris-style' agreement to turn biodiversity loss into a nature-positive world by 2030.

Wageningen scientists involved in report

Many scientists from around the world have been involved in WWF’s flagship report. Scientists from Wageningen University & Research contributed to the scenario studies showing that biodiversity will continue to decline. They also joined the thought leadership on what we could do about this, showing a package of sustainability measures that could lead to the recovery of biodiversity. Mentioned are a strong limitation of CO2 emissions, less meat consumption in the western world, forms of sustainable agriculture and increasing the area of protected nature.

Role of economics

There are already many initiatives that have a positive impact on nature, argues Jeanne Nel, Programme Lead Biodiverse Environment at Wageningen University & Research. She and her Wageningen colleague Francisco Alpizar (Professor of Environmental Economics and Natural Resource) wrote the chapter ‘What do we need from economics for transformative change?’. This chapter in the report addresses the role of economic sciences in making a shift towards sustainability.

Economics as we know it needs to change systemically to reflect broader social values than just economic growth
Jeanne Nel

Conventional environmental policy has mainly focused on the direct causes of nature’s degradation such as deforestation and excessive use of agrochemicals. While necessary, this conservation approach alone is failing to change the destructive way in which economies and societies relate to nature, the Wageningen scientists conclude. "Transformative changes can be triggered by carefully designed interventions, targeting critical leverage points, at different scales of action that change the choices and decisions people make", Nel argues. "Economics as we know it needs to change systemically to reflect broader social values than just economic growth. Governments and financial regulators must take the lead in this."

Underlying incentives push towards nature degradation

Francisco Alpizar adds that humanity does not cause damage to nature because it wants to do so. "We do it because the underlying system of incentives pushes us towards nature degradation. Yes, we need to restore forests and protected areas, but these changes will not solve the problem. We need to stop the root causes."

Promising interventions

Alpizar and Nel will launch an EU-funded programme in November to identify promising interventions that can give society a shift in the right direction. According to the Wageningen scientists, three global transitions are key. First, the prices of commodities and inputs should reflect the true cost to society in terms of environmental and human impacts.

Second, the use of economic tools for very long-term horizons should become part of the global standard of practice for credible decision-making by businesses, financial institutions and multilateral organisations. Alpizar: "For example, we are looking at the financial sector from the understanding that climate change and biodiversity loss are serious threats to financial systems.”

It should be possible to extend the regulations, for example, to require products to be 'free from deforestation'
Francisco Alpizar

Third, awareness of the public importance of essential natural resources should lead to improved governance and precautionary measures. For instance, there are great opportunities around trade regulations, Alpizar states: “These regulations now ensure, for example, that fruit entering the EU does not contain diseases and pests. So, the EU determines how fruits are produced elsewhere. It should also be possible to extend the regulations, for example, to require products to be 'free from deforestation'."

“We know what has to be done”

“Humanity is not necessarily good at preventing bad things to happen; we are much better at solving problems that are right on top of us”, Alpizar concludes. He hopes the WWF report will contribute to a high sense of urgency by showing that the problem is indeed right on top of us: “We need to take action now - and we know what has to be done."