Biodiversity & Global Health: Q&A with Ryan McManamay, Ph.D.

In celebration of Earth Day 2023, Ryan McManamay, Ph.D., Baylor biodiversity expert and assistant professor of environmental science, discusses recent advances in global agreements that provide a collaborative framework to address some of the most pressing concerns related to biodiversity across the planet.

April 19, 2023

Biodiversity encompasses the wide range of species that inhabit our planet. It can serve as a vital marker in the health of ecosystems, providing us with food, medicine and other resources necessary for our survival. Research is increasingly showing biodiversity declining at an alarming rate in some crucial areas, like the world’s oceans and rainforests. As the understanding around the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss has increased, the global commitment to address and mitigate that impact has also grown.

What is the significance of biodiversity as a marker for global environmental health?

Biodiversity can be measured in a lot of ways, but many times we think of numbers of species. Different species have different environmental requirements for survival. High biodiversity generally suggests environmental health is optimal and ecosystems are functioning as they should. Hence, losses in biodiversity and species indicate that environmental conditions have changed for the worse, meaning losses in ecosystem services, such as land and water resource integrity, clean air and water, energy, and the ability of the ecosystem to purify waste.

What can be the consequences related to losses in biodiversity?

Ultimately, losses in ecosystem services pose risks to our economy, society and even our own existence. Biodiversity is a key indicator of global environmental health because it provides a measure of sustained ecosystem function important to human survival as well. Biodiversity, however, is not only an indicator of ecosystem function — species also have roles in earth’s biogeochemical and hydrologic cycles. Biodiversity also sustains ecosystem function, which in turn, sustains biodiversity. In other words, biodiversity begets biodiversity.

In light of recent landmark global biodiversity framework (GBF) agreements, like those from the UN’s COP 15 Biodiversity Conference and the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, what are the global goals to preserve and protect biodiversity?

The global goals are directly aimed at addressing the issues responsible for past alarming rates of species extinctions and trying to curb those trends. The biggest landmark in the recent COP15 is the 30x30 goal — preserving and protecting 30 percent of land and water by 2030. In the U.S., only 12% of lands and 26% of waters are protected. Sustaining biodiversity requires preserving areas where species have enough room to survive. One of the problems is that our nation’s conservation lands are highly fragmented. Essentially, we need to increase the area of protected lands and those areas need to be connected to other protected lands. Unfortunately, the nature of human development generally induces loss and fragmentation of habitats, which does not support co-existence of sensitive species, and the human footprint on global land and waterscapes is growing rapidly.

Another important consideration is improving the quality of habitat in remaining areas that are unprotected. In the late 1990s, studies utilizing satellite observations suggested that over 50% of the world’s land was appropriated to human activities, such as agriculture. Recently, however, it is estimated that only 5% of the world’s land mass is untouched by human activity, and only one third of the world’s great rivers remain free flowing from their origin to the ocean. Another ambitious goal of the GBF is restoring 30% of degraded lands, waters and marine areas by 2030.

What are some additional factors that impact species existence?

There are other risks besides having space. The GBF also addressed reducing the rate of invasive species introduction and establishment by 50%. Invasive species — species not indigenous to an area — pose great risk to ecosystem health by competing with, preying upon or simply displacing native species. A perfect example is zebra mussels that invaded the Great Lakes in the U.S. and totally transformed that system — and the fishery economy — through their extremely high filtering ability. It is estimated that invasive species cost over $21 billion to the U.S. economy — primarily the agriculture sector — and over $121 billion to the global economy due to management, prevention and infrastructure losses.

Other goals in the GBF include improving quality of habitats by reducing wastes, primarily nutrients, pesticides and plastics, which are growing global problems that pose risk to species physiological health. Additionally, climate change is expected to only add insult to injury by further stressing organismal physiological needs, either through warming temperatures, changes to biogeochemical cycles or losses in ecosystem structure, like forests. The GBF calls for increases in ecosystem-based approaches, such as reforestation or green infrastructure in urban areas, to mitigate climate change — these approaches double as direct habitat conservation measures as well as sequestering carbon from the atmosphere or providing cooling effects.

What additional measures are needed to address certain activities that may be either helping or harming global biodiversity?

Dealing with the problems not only requires mitigative measures, but also addressing the drivers of global environmental change. So, the GBF also seeks to remove the economic or social incentives that lead to biodiversity loss. This requires removing subsidies that incentivize extractive resource activities — such as deforestation in the tropics — and understanding full life cycles of commercial products, leading to extractive resource use or further contamination. This could require increasing transparency for large global companies and financial institutions to disclose and monitor ultimate impacts of their operations and products on biodiversity, through supply chains and investments.

Finally, these activities require a lot of money. It is estimated that at least $200 billion per year by 2030 is required from domestic, international, public and private resources to support the needed conservation measures.

How does this agreement and similar efforts include considerations for developing countries?

Much conservation efforts are needed in developing countries that house some of the world’s most biodiverse areas, but yet lack the financial resources or incentives to either establish measures or manage conservation lands. Additionally, these countries are susceptible to short-term financial gains from outside investors seeking extractive use and exploitation of forest and energy resources. The GBF also calls for national biodiversity finance planning from private and domestic resources to mobilize $20 to 30 billion per year by 2030 as financial flows from developed to developing countries to help support these efforts.

What is the U.S. doing to work alongside the GBF?

There are several steps outlined in a recent press release that highlight the specific areas where the White House plans to align U.S. efforts with the GBF. The Biden administration has committed to the 30x30 target for the U.S., but there are also U.S.-specific commitments that are aimed to align with other areas of increasing emphasis for the U.S. federal government, particularly surrounding equity. First, the Biden administration released the Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, aimed at valuating natural ecosystem benefits, increasing the values of those in economic assessments and prioritizing nature-based solutions for nature loss, climate change and inequity. Additionally, there is new government-wide guidance for Federal agencies to recognize Indigenous Knowledge in research, policy and decision-making. Finally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act has appropriated over $12.4 billion to promote access to parks and green spaces, especially nature-deprived communities.