The IPBES, or the IPCC for biodiversity, calls for transformative changes in our lifestyles to preserve the planet. cattan2011/Flickr, CC BY

Taking action on climate change or biodiversity is harder than it looks. We saw this last November when the conflict of interest of Sultan al-Jaber, president of both the COP28 and of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company, were there for all to see. Sultan al-Jaber was accused of taking advantage of the world climate summit to strike backroom business deals for his company. He also claimed that there was no scientific evidence to justify the elimination of fossil fuels, before finally peddling back.
This episode illustrates the difficulty of adopting a climate rhetoric that brings about real change without exacerbating climate change itself. This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Sciences Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – also known as the IPCC on Biodiversity – are calling for transformative change.
But what is transformative change? Another political buzzword? The IPBES defines it as a “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”.

So it’s not just a small change here or there, but a complete rethink of our way of life. Understandably, transformative change involves many different scientific disciplines. The difficulty of bringing it about is a reflection of the complex socio-ecological environment in which we live. But there is nothing magic about it. To understand how this concept can help us, we must first go back to its origins.

Back to the roots

For more than 10 years, the IPBES has produced several global assessments, sounding the alarm about the loss of biodiversity and the ecosystem systems it provides to humans. Despite presenting knowledge from thousands of scientific studies in its assessment reports, the political response has largely been lacklustre. This applies to species conservation, sustainable development and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from biodiversity, such as genetic resources.

By and large, decision-makers have failed to heed the IPBES’ warnings, be it at a global, national or local level. In fact, we are continuing to lose wildlife at an unprecedented rate.

What we need to understand is that introducing transformative change in the way we live is hard. There are as yet no clearly established ways of factoring in biodiversity into political choices. One example is transport, which is a major source of CO2 emissions. Yet we are far from refraining from unnecessary travel.

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Another example, in the leisure sector, is that of ski resorts. They are still trying to counter the effects of climate change by moving ever higher, or by installing even more snow cannons and water reservoirs. All the while having a sometimes serious impact on local wildlife, and the functioning of rivers and streams.

Last February, a Court of Auditors report pointed out that French taxpayers’ money spent on adapting ski resorts was money wasted, which should go on more important challenges.

IPBES is currently carrying out an in-depth assessment of transformative change. The stakes are high: putting humanity on a sustainable path.

What is transformative change?

To understand what transformative change is, we can look at the problem in reverse. With the Industrial Revolution, economic growth became continuous. This led to a co-evolution of our values, our knowledge, our social organisation, our technologies and our environment.

As a result, humanity has crossed many planetary limits. The dramatic consequence of increasing CO2 emissions is constantly rising temperatures, more and more climatic disasters and a general imbalance in the global climate.

We are also overexploiting our natural resources and, in the process, destroying biodiversity. This increases health risks due to the rise in the incidence of pathogens, the decline in water quality and the resulting decline in mental and physical health.

The pressure on biodiversity is constantly mounting due to economic interests. The number of derogations requested from regional scientific committees (CSRPN) or the national nature protection committee (CNPN) is a good indicator of this.

In other words, transformative change would lessen those impacts of ours that threaten the survival system of life on Earth. What we have done to exploit – and then over-exploit – natural resources, we can also undo to return to sustainable levels of pressure in all sectors.

Bringing nature into the city

One way to usher in transformative change would be to green our urban infrastructure. Urban ecosystems are also home to biodiversity that provides important ecosystem services for human well-being.

For example, a community that keeps patches of wildflowers instead of regularly mown grass manages to slash costs, prevent water runoff and limit its greenhouse gas emissions, all the while increasing the diversity and abundance of insects, birds and communities.

But to bring these thoughts on transformative change to life, we need to overcome a number of hurdles. To mention just a few of them: there is the challenge of governance, that of better bringing biodiversity into the urban green infrastructure, as well as the challenge of developing more modern urban planning modelling that is better suited for the future life in cities. It must take into consideration all the various health impacts originating from degraded environments, such as pathogens and parasites, poisoning from pollution, and mental distress.

Challenging? Certainly. But in this way, not only will we all be able to enjoy more pleasant cities, but their negative effects on the planet will also be reduced.

Involving business and politicians

But greening our urban systems will also demand that businesses get involved and adapt their business processes and governance. There are five possible strategies to encourage them to do so:

  • Make biodiversity conservation the business of all companies, from the large to the small;

  • Shifting focus from CO2, which nowadays captures almost all of businesses’ sustainability efforts, toward biodiversity protection;

  • Hold companies accountable for their impacts on biodiversity throughout their supply chains;

  • Develop a corporate culture favourable to the protection of biodiversity;

  • And finally, create third-party certifications to assess biodiversity-friendly business practices.

Each of these strategies, alone or in combination, is a challenge in itself. Not only for businesses, but also for politicians. In these circumstances, new scientific knowledge is needed to move away from the statu quo and bring innovative solutions to the political world.

The situation in France and Europe

In France, the third national biodiversity strategy (SNB3) is failing to bring about transformative change in society.

Why? Because our major impacts on biodiversity and the environment have not been taken into account. Authorities have failed to identify the differences between land and sea, freshwater and ecosystems. There is no distinction between evidence-based and anecdotal conservation actions.

The French strategy focuses too much on limiting or offsetting environmental impacts, and relies too much on voluntary approaches, labels and certification. It does not take into account the links between man and biodiversity and man’s dependence on the biosphere. This is shown by the scientific literature that has studied the SNB3 using the IPBES grid.

The European Union (EU), for its part, has tried to be more ambitious about the ecological transition. It has established the “do-no-harm” principle (also known as “do no significant harm”), which gives each State responsibility for preventing, reducing and controlling the risk of environmental damage.

It is a proactive policy measure that requires economic actors to do no harm to the six main environmental objectives that determine the sustainability of an activity: climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation, sustainable use of marine resources, circular economy, pollution prevention and reduction, and finally the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The contribution of transdisciplinarity

In this respect, we must not only find new solutions to bring about transformative change, but also assess the transformative potential of current measures.

To do this, we need to train people (particularly young researchers and political and economic decision-makers) in transdisciplinary thinking. The feedback from experience is very encouraging. They show that this type of training, by supporting learning by doing, group interactions and interdisciplinary exchanges, encourages the emergence of shared values and visions as well as constructive self-criticism.

The challenge of transformative change is complex and requires a trans – and multidisciplinary approach, at the crossroads of environmental, social and medical sciences, technologies and education. We need to pursue it at the global, regional, national and local levels, enlisting companies, politicians and decision-makers who are well informed about these issues. And above all, we need civil society to rise to the challenge.

In other words, transformative change is everybody’s business. A transformed future is possible, but we need to move from rhetoric to action, together.

Dirk S. Schmeller, Directeur de recherche CNRS, Expert for Conservation Biology, Axa Chair for Functional Mountain Ecology at the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Toulouse, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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