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‘We should help nature to help us’

Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems continue to decline in Europe, which has serious consequences for human welfare. These are findings of a report that was formally approved by delegates from 127 governments during a UN plenary in Medellin, Colombia. Leiden researcher Alexander van Oudenhoven was one of the experts to contribute to the report, which also offers a series of possible solutions.

Suggested solutions include the restoration of ecosystems and adopting more nature-inclusive approaches in business sectors and policy. ‘Increasing the amount of green in cities, for instance, prevents streets from flooding, reduces air pollution, provides shade and makes people happier and healthier,’ Van Oudenhoven says.   

What nature does for you

Today, you will benefit in many ways from what nature provides to you, mostly for free. The water you drink has been purified and stored in dunes or other ecosystems. Coffee beans are the result of a combination of fertile soils, pollination and biodiversity elsewhere in the world. For relaxation, you might head to the park or forest, where the air is clean and birds are singing. However, climate change, increasing population numbers and land-use change continue to have an effect on nature. How will this change in biodiversity have an effect on your own quality of life?  

Voluntary contribution to UN assessment

This complex, multi-facetted question is covered by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This is the global UN body that assesses the state of biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, in response to requests by 127 member governments. Four regional assessments were presented today, covering the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe and Central Asia. Another report, on global land degradation and restoration is due to be presented coming Monday (March 27th).

Alexander van Oudenhoven was lead author of the report on Europe and Central Asia, together with 120 experts from 36 countries, including Ben ten Brink of the Netherlands Assessment Agency (PBL). Authorship occurred on voluntary basis and by nomination of the Dutch government. During the past 2.5 years, the experts reviewed almost 4000 publications, reports, databases and indigenous and local knowledge sources. Three versions of the report have been reviewed extensively by hundreds of external experts, including decision makers and practitioners.

Sustainable development under threat

The assessment found that biodiversity is largely declining in the region and so are most of nature’s contributions to people. This decline is mainly due to climate change, unsustainable natural resource extraction and pollution. According to van Oudenhoven, “These trends are likely to continue in the future, which means that our progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2020 or beyond is limited. It is therefore needed to actively invest in the protection, restoration and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems.’

Food security at what cost?

‘Our consumption of natural resources in Western Europe is so high, that we depend on the production of natural resources elsewhere in Europe and Central Asia, as well as other parts of the world.’ Van Oudenhoven states. The IPBES assessment found that Western Europe in particular has focused strongly on the production of food and biomass. But production has been unsustainably intensive, the report says, resulting in the decline of pollination, loss of freshwater quality and quantity, eroding landscapes, and greater risks of floods. Because food production depends strongly on other contributions of nature, our focus on food is actually proving a threat to our food security and welfare. ‘We should realise that our behaviour has a large impact on the nature all over the world, and thus on the food security, livelihoods and cultures of other people.’

Nature’s contribution to a better life

The IPBES assessment also includes other aspects of quality of life that are underpinned by nature’s contributions, such as learning, inspiration, physical and psychological experiences and health. According to Van Oudenhoven, insights in how people experience and understand the importance of nature are crucial for decision makers. “Such insights can lead to higher support for nature-inclusive policies and increased understanding on how nature affects human health. In Western Europe, for instance, we are facing an increasing shortage of opportunities to interact with nature, and throughout Europe and Central Asia, there has been a substantial loss of people’s knowledge of ecosystems and species.’

Successfully turning the tide

But it is not all doom and gloom. Some shining examples of successfully implemented policies can be found. ‘During periods of intensive rainfall, countries like The Netherlands often suffer less from floods than countries in Central Europe,’ explains Van Oudenhoven. ‘This is the result of giving room for the rivers to flow over, and of restoring natural floodplains that retain large amounts of water. There is much to be inspired about and learn from how we have been dealing with flood regulation and coastal protection in The Netherlands. If we give nature a chance and invest in her, she will give us so much back in return.’

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