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Reversing Dramatic Decline Of World’s Wildlife Will Require Transformations That Benefit People Too – Forbes

Tiger populations have declined dramatically over the past century, but conservation efforts have … [+] led to increases over the past decade. Here a tiger is photographed by a camera trap in Nepal where tiger numbers have nearly tripled since 2009.
Earlier this month, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its biannual Living Planet Report, which featured a jarring statistic: since 1970, global populations of monitored wildlife—specifically, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians—have declined on average by 69%.
I was born in 1971, meaning that the world has seen that two-thirds decline just since I entered it (full disclosure, I work for WWF but was not a co-author on the 2022 report).
I will dig into how this headline result was calculated and what it means below. But this post will also focus on two other headlines.
First: Reversing this decline will take a whole-of-society effort.
And then: We can do this.
These headlines underscore that, although continued conservation efforts are key, reversing wildlife declines will require a much broader and more comprehensive approach. This will include transforming how we generate energy and how we grow food.
Those transformations sound like a tall order. Transformations are not simple or automatic, true. But first, they are transformations that we need to make anyhow and, although they are crucial to restoring wildlife, they are also crucial to human health, safety, and well-being.
Second, they are attainable, as demonstrated by the transformation in energy systems that is already underway.
The alarming results in the Living Planet Report are derived from the Living Planet Index (LPI), a set of statistics developed by the Zoological Society of London. The LPI integrates abundance data on over 32,000 populations of vertebrates, spanning over 5,000 species.
To clarify between species and populations, consider the type of fish known as a whale shark (Rhincodon typus). There are whale sharks that live in the Caribbean and there are whale sharks that live in the Indian Ocean near Australia. These fishes are all the same species, but they are within distinct populations, meaning they do not interact or reproduce with each other. The LPI includes data on the abundance of 13 distinct populations of whale sharks around the world.
It also includes data on the abundance of mountain gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. And bald eagles in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. And the population of Dorado catfish in the Amazon River. And so on, up to 32,000 distinct populations. Data for all of these are integrated to derive the overall Living Planet Index, providing the average change in abundance for global wildlife.
You can think of the -69% for the LPI as analogous to the performance of a stock index, such as the S&P 500. Some individual stocks may rise, some may fall, but the S&P 500 can report a single number that reflects the overall performance of the market over some time period.
The LPI can be calculated for individual continents or for specific groups of species, such as sharks, migratory fish, or those species that depend on freshwater habitats (rivers, lakes and wetlands). The LPI for freshwater populations is even more alarming, showing an average decline of 83% since 1970.
But, as promised, let’s now pivot to those other headlines.
While the report’s primary headline is bad news, there actually is quite a bit of positive within the data. For example, the LPI trendline from North America has been relatively flat for a few decades and is even ticking up. Globally, many populations are moving in a positive direction, including high-profile species such as tigers, which have nearly tripled in numbers in Nepal in just over a decade. The population of loggerhead turtles in Chrysochou Bay in Cyprus increased by 500% since 1999.
Many of these successes have been due to focused conservation efforts by government wildlife agencies, conservation organizations, and communities, and these efforts will continue to be important. But reversing the broad decline of wildlife will take far more than just what we typically consider conservation.
Halting the decline—and then bending the curve back up toward restoring nature—will require a whole-of-society approach. How we generate energy and how we grow food are two examples of major economic sectors that will need to be transformed in order to truly bend the curve.
Energy production and use has had major negative impacts on wildlife, encompassing large-scale mining, oil spills, the damming of rivers for hydropower, air pollution and climate change (scientists note that climate change is not yet one of the main causes of population declines, but that will likely change if we don’t achieve our climate targets).
Food production is also a major driver of wildlife decline, contributing to approximately 70% of the decline of biodiversity on land. Further, food production is responsible for about 70% of all the water consumed by people’s activities, while agriculture accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
We need to transform these sectors, not just for the sake of wildlife, but also for the health and well-being of people. To maintain the climate safely within the stable boundaries in which civilization developed will require the decarbonization of energy systems, while agriculture will need to shift toward sequestering (or storing) carbon, in plants and soils, rather than emitting carbon. Further, food systems will need to become more resilient to the weather variability unleashed by the already shifting climate. Food production practices and diets will need to evolve in order to ensure that 10 billion people have access to healthy, nutritious, and abundant food; we’ll need to address malnutrition in some parts of the world while also addressing the practices that lead to overconsumption and obesity-related health risks in other parts of the world.
While we transform these food and energy systems to improve the health and safety of people (and, really, civilization itself) we will also be improving conditions for wildlife. Some of this will simply be synergistic—for example, the benefits that both people and wildlife will derive from reducing air and water pollution and stabilizing the climate. In other cases, it may require intentional design for multiple benefits, such as restoring forests for both carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat or managing wetlands to reduce flood risk and water pollution and also benefit aquatic species.
And just as you are thinking, “wow, time for him to take off those rose-colored glasses,” let’s consider the final headline: We can do this.
Why the optimism? Well, the transformation of energy systems is well underway. The cost of wind and solar PV have dropped dramatically in the past decade and they are now the cheapest forms of electricity on the planet. Nearly 70% of new generation capacity added each year is from these renewable sources. Just a decade ago, that would have seemed like a fantasy.
Bending the curve for wildlife will require transformations in how we grow food and produce energy. … [+] The current “renewable revolution”—featuring a 90% decline in cost of solar PV in the past decade—shows that these transformations are possible and that they have great benefits to people.
In the U.S., the climate and energy components of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act are poised to trigger even more rapid investment in wind and solar and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
This ongoing transformation of the energy sector arose through a whole-of-society effort. NGOs and communities have long advocated for more sustainable energy policies and for the adoption of renewable energy. Governments invested in research and development and offered tax incentives to spur investment. The private sector responded to these signals with the gains in technology, production, and practices that have resulted in the dramatic drop in costs (90% in a decade for solar).
Consider the LPI a dashboard light indicator (hopefully on an EV) blinking red. In fact, it has been blinking red for a while. It is time to respond. We know what to do because we’ve done it before, including the conservation efforts required to double the population of a large predator, or the whole-of-society collaboration required to transform an entire economic sector.
The attention-grabbing headline of the Living Planet Report is one of decline. That attention is critical, but the other headlines offer a realistic path to bend the curve toward a recovery of nature as part of a healthier and safer planet for all of us.

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