International action on biodiversity

Yadvinder Malhi

Professor Yadvinder Malhi CBE FRS is Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests. In addition, he is Visiting Professor at Imperial College London. He chaired the process of drafting of the G7 Science Academies Statement on Biodiversity. He has a broad research interest in the interactions between the biosphere and climate change. He has developed an international research network, the Global Ecosystem Monitoring network (GEM gem. collecting data on ecosystem function in a number of research sites across the tropics.


  • G7member countries are responsible for 40% of the world’s consumption of biological resources
  • Biodiversity must be embedded into economic planning and thinking
  • The monitoring of changes in biodiversity is essential
  • Biodiversity is now being recognised as an existential challenge
  • Having the will to act on our improved understanding is the real challenge.

The G7 has a major role to play in addressing the biodiversity crisis. While members account for 10% of the world’s population, they are responsible for 40% of the world’s consumption of biological resources, i.e. of nature. 

So there is an important moral dimension in this, and also potential leadership. This group of the most influential nations can take major action, both within the member nations but also through supporting initiatives across the world.

In order to outline that role and move things forward, the Science Academies of the G7 – all 30 of them – drafted the Statement on Biodiversity1, which includes a set of recommendations. The first concerns the need to embed biodiversity into economic planning and thinking, as well as human wellbeing. The world needs to move beyond narrow economic definitions to a much more integrated approach.

The second recommendation is about the integration of systems-thinking into our planning for the future – linking up economic planning and human development planning with an understanding of climate and biodiversity. The aim, of course, is to enable joined-up decisions about forward pathways.

The final recommendation involved the ways to monitor biodiversity effectively. How will we know when things are going wrong and, equally, when things are going right? What are the gaps in humanity’s ability to understand the world’s immense biological diversity? What improvements can be made both in terms of overall technological capacity and also in strengthening general capacity in the global South where most of the world’s biodiversity is found?

The underlying principle is to consider the biophysical capacity limits of biodiversity when drawing up economic or trade plans. This could include establishing pathways that combine sustainable agricultural yields: in other words, improving the provision of nutrition for humanity, while at the same time protecting biodiversity and staying within a safe climate space.

Another area, which is still an emerging concept, is to manage biodiversity and trade while minimising the risk of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Not just the initial appearance of the disease but also the international connections that allow it to spread. Agreed protocols need to be developed.

Then there is the whole field of nature-based solutions. In addition to finding ways to mitigate or adapt to climate change, we need to find ways to address the biodiversity crisis while at the same time aiding human development. So for example, one avenue is to encourage a shift towards more plant-based diets. That does not mean everybody has to become vegetarian or vegan, but decreasing the amount and footprint of meat in our diet is important, because the amount of land devoted to rearing livestock is a major cause of biodiversity loss and habitat degradation.

Countries like the UK have a relatively good understanding of biodiversity and have developed effective monitoring systems.


The monitoring of changes in biodiversity is essential in helping develop strategies to protect the environment. Countries like the UK have a relatively good understanding of biodiversity and have developed effective monitoring systems for the many aspects of that diversity. In other countries, in the tropics for example, it is really difficult to maintain biological tracking, partly because the biology is so much more overwhelming – there is so much more of it. In addition, the resources and the capacity to carry out this monitoring effectively are simply not there.

So there is potential to strengthen monitoring networks, particularly in these biodiversity-rich countries. It would be worth considering extending it beyond the obvious as well. Everyone loves birds and mammals, and they are generally quite well studied and monitored. However, the insects that are crucial to many of the essential life support functions of biodiversity, or the creatures that keep soil healthy, need much more understanding and attention so that we know when things are beginning to fall apart, or when we want to rebuild natural ecosystems.

Biodiversity has been the neglected sibling of the climate challenge: climate change has been seen as an existential threat for quite a while. Biodiversity, on the other hand, has been thought of as nice to have, but not essential.

That has begun to change with biodiversity also recognised as an existential challenge. Pulling apart the fabric of our biodiversity will result in fundamental breakdowns in our resilience to climate change and many other issues.

There is a great deal of effort going into persuading people to moderate or reduce their use of resources - such as legislation to reduce the consumption of plastic bags. 


Robust analysis

There is a real opportunity now for next generation modelling to include the climate system, the complexity of the ecological system, and the complexity of the social system. All of this in one framework allows an exploration of feedbacks and trade-offs. All the various elements have been around for a while, but with today’s computational power, as well as our greater ecological and social understanding, it is possible to carry out an analysis that is much more robust.

Producing better and better scenarios to improve our understanding is only part of the solution, though. Having the will to act on that understanding is, obviously, the more profound challenge that we have.

It is important to highlight consumption when thinking about population. When questions are asked about human populations and their impact on the planet, the focus tends to be on the global South, where some countries have large projected population increases. Yet the global North has a disproportionate impact overall, because per capita consumption is so high.

There are two ways of addressing high levels of consumption. The first is to limit or ultimately decrease it. The other is to make consumption as decoupled or circular as possible. In the latter, as many materials as possible are recycled, energy does not pour waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and efforts are made to decouple the economy from biophysical systems by reducing the interactions.

It is very difficult to see a future where there are no limits placed on consumption. There is a great deal of effort going into persuading people to moderate or reduce their use of resources. Yet that change not is happening quickly enough, so there may be a need to think more proactively about some limits, making hard choices. There are example of where this has worked: plastic bags is one.

The net zero goal sets a number of shorter-term goals – where we need to be in 10 years’ time for example – on the way to the mid-century net zero goal. Goals on biodiversity are also being established, with some long-term targets for governments to commit to.

Societal change is a key factor. If society commits to these goals, they are much more likely to be carried through in the longer term: there will be a popular mandate.

On questions of international governance, there are areas of the world that have, like the Antarctic, international agreement about the way they are regulated. A colleague who is a marine scientist has proposed reversing the current approach to global commons governance – in this case, of the open oceans. Instead of defensively protecting them, the default would be that they are not to be exploited. Exceptions would only be made on the basis of a robust, agreed proposal.

The biosphere is the matrix that creates us and surrounds us. There is a visceral connection to nature – and pandemics really bring that reality home. Such immersive connection is probably best communicated through the Arts and the Humanities, bringing a deeper cultural understanding – there is a real role for these disciplines in getting beyond words and attaching us to a deeper connection with nature.