Speech | 21 Feb, 2019

IUCN Director General’s speech at the National Biodiversity Conference in Ireland

On 21 February 2019 in Dublin, during the National Biodiversity Conference, IUCN Director General Inger Andersen delivered a keynote speech on nature and biodiversity.

content hero image

Photo: Kirahunddog / Pixabay

Mr. Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland
Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General, Dept. Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht
Dr. Humberto Delgado Rosa , Director for Natural Capital, European Commission
Mr. Michael Ewing, Coordinator, Irish Environmental Network
Dr. Tara Shine, Change By Degrees

Ladies and Gentlemen, partners, colleagues and friends.

It is a great honor for me to speak at the occasion of the National Biodiversity Conference here in beautiful Dublin, Ireland.

I congratulate the organizers for both the vision and ambition in pulling together this conference with so many topics being treated, with such impressive participation and with fantastic fellow speakers.

I come to you with five basic messages. They really are rather simple. But in their simplicity, they have been much overlooked. Because human society has taken nature for granted for so long. We assume that that season will follow season; that our fields will be pollinated and yield bountiful harvests; that the soil will be fertile and that the rains will come. We assume that this very fine web of life on which our very existence depends will remain unaltered.  Even as we carelessly pave over, extract, emit, cause effluents, fragment and exterminate.

So in their simplicity, perhaps each of my five messages will touch a note of deeper meaning.


My first message is quite simple: that biodiversity is critical for human existence. But biodiversity is also under huge threats globally. As we destroy biodiversity, we not only lose species, we also lose the very foundation of our existence.

Biodiversity produces our food. The recent study published in Biological Conservation highlights the loss of insects, for example. The study finds that over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction and that habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, while agro-chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes.

This is further borne out by the 2013 Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research Study that assessed that economic value of insect pollination for oil seed rape crops alone was around was above Euro2.5m per year. Take away our pollinators and consider the cost that mechanical pollination will add to our food production.

Biodiversity also secures our health. We need to think of biodiversity as both a source of health and medicine as well as a pathogen. It is well known that exposure to nature reduces our blood pressure, our stress levels; enhances our children’s cognitive development, and of course – when we move in nature – helps reduce incidences cardio vascular disease and diabetes.

So ensuring that we have access to nature matters.  But beyond this, nature is also our pharmacy. In fact more than 62% of all novel, active substances for treating disease approved between 1981-2002 initially derived from natural biological sources such as plants, fungi and bacteria. But nature and biodiversity can also be a source of pathogens. Infringe on nature and zoonotic diseases can impact on the human population. Bats carrying Ebola; monkeys carrying the HIV virus; bird flu, malaria, are just a few examples.

Biodiversity underpins our jobs and our economies. Biodiversity and vibrant productive ecosystems are the foundation for our societies underpinning key sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and timber industries. Indeed, on a global scale, about 50% of the world’s population rely on nature and natural resources for their jobs and livelihoods. And here, in 2015, Ireland’s 5th report to the Biodiversity Convention highlights that the value of the contribution that ecosystems’ make to the economy can be estimated at around €2.6bn per year

And biodiversity and ecosystems provide a key ingredient for the very stability of society itself. Increasingly, evidence is emerging on the links between ecosystem stability and societal stability.  Or put it another way, link between ecosystem collapse and societal collapse.  While there are many other causes of conflict, strife and refugee flows, it is well documented that when nature sends us its invoice for our mismanaging our planet, -- and those invoices are coming with an ever greater frequency – they come in the form of droughts, floods, zoonotic diseases, fires, landslides, glacier melts and so on. When nature sends us these invoices agricultural productivity drops, scarcity sets in and conflict, strife and refugee flows tend to increase.

But biodiversity and nature are also our identity. Nature, its scents, the sounds, the trees and the birds, all of these provide us with a sense of identity. A sense of home. The safe place. The known. I am sure that when each of you think back to your most happy moment, chances were that you were in nature. For me that is certainly the case: Standing with my parents as a child by the sea witnessing natures beauty as the sun would set over a golden ocean; shrieking with my brothers as we were running through an intense summer rainstorm in the forest near our house getting soaked for the pure pleasure of it. These moments define who we are. Define where we belong. They root us in nature.

So endanger biodiversity, and we threaten our food, our health, our jobs, our economy and our peace.

Lose biodiversity and we lose our peace. We lose our joy.  We lose our humanity. We lose ourselves.


My second message is that nature is very forgiving. Give nature half the chance and it will bounce back. Basically, conservation works. Everyone in this audience will know this. But it is worth repeating. With good conservation measures, the rate of loss can be turned around.  Invest in nature’s infrastructure and that same infrastructure – our forests, our mangroves, our estuaries, seagrasses, coral reefs, wetlands, our marshes, our natural coastlines, etc., will not only protect us but will also become more species rich and retain nature’s diversity.

Species can be brought back from near the brink of extinction through good conservation and protection investments, through sound policies and smart interventions. But once a species is extinct, it is forever, and there is no coming back.


My third message is that to secure life on Earth, we need bold transformative action, underpinned by sound science and effective policy.

In September 2015, 193 countries looked ahead 15 years and drew a detailed and formidable picture of what the world could look like in 2030, if we get the 2020s right. So if you want to know what 2030 will look like - could look like - it’s there for all of us to see, set out in 17 ambitious goals, the Sustainable Development Goals also aptly known as “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

It’s a world free of poverty and hunger. It’s a healthier, better educated world with greater social justice, clean water, and sanitation. It’s a world that has tackled climate challenges, in part because it runs on affordable, clean energy. It’s a world where the trend of dying biodiversity has been reversed, thanks in great part to the fact that our oceans and terrestrial ecosystems have been given a new lease on life.

This is the world that we want.


And so my fourth message concerns what we must now do. The actions we must take in the context of the post 2020 goals; the things we must do for nature.

In the environmental community, there is talk of 2020 as the “super year”. The year of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the year when Biodiversity COP15 will take place and new biodiversity targets will be agreed; the year when the Paris Climate Accord goes into effect.

This audience will be very familiar with the Biodiversity Convention and the Aichi targets which were agreed at the Conference of Parties, held in Nagoya in the Aichi Prefecture in Japan in 2010. A 10-year plan to stabilize the earths’ ecosystems and its species wealth.

Some of the targets, notably the targets that address protected areas were measurable, while others were not. It is clear, however, that some of the most critical of the 20 targets biodiversity will not be met by 2020. And in the 10 years since the targets were adopted, loss of biodiversity has continued unabatedly.

So what failed? In large part, the Biodiversity Convention has remained in the domain of conservationists, known to some well-informed environment ministers, but not mainstreamed in our societies.

Sector policies that drive biodiversity losses, -- land fragmentation, zoning, agricultural chemical subsidies and use, fertilizer subsidies, infrastructure demands, invasive species and climate change –policies that impact these, have not been adjusted to address and head off the biodiversity losses. Rather, the prevailing drivers of loss have been allowed to continue unabated, and may even have intensified in many countries’ during the past 10 years.

So to make the systemic shifts that are needed to preserve the earth’s operating system, we need bold actions. Our message needs to resonate beyond the conservation community; we need to shift financial and policy incentives so that all citizens, including farmers and land owners, communities and cities will reap real benefits from biodiversity positive actions, including benefits from biodiversity - positive farming or smart integration of nature -positive urban or infrastructure design.

So for biodiversity, 2020 represents an unparalleled opportunity to advance nature conservation and the biodiversity mission. This moment will not come again, so it is critical that we get this right.


And that brings me to my fifth and final message.

The planet is in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. And we are the driving factor. But here is the good news.  Because it is a game changer and it is particularly relevant here today.

We can change all of this.

We have the evidence that conservation works and the knowledge needed to take action. We can and must work with nature to conserve biodiversity, and by doing so help address many of our greatest challenges, such as putting an end to hunger, poverty, and inequality.

This is because nature plays a critical, yet often underappreciated, role in our economic wellbeing, our health and many critical aspects of our lives. For instance, coral reef ecosystems directly support over 500 million people through fisheries and income from tourism. Even the more humble of species, such as the insects pollinating our crops and the microbes enriching our soils, play a key role in the world’s food production and water security. By conserving soil biodiversity, we could help halt desertification, which is claiming an area of productive land equivalent to South Africa every decade. Rainforests, mangroves and seagrass meadows help protect us from the worst effects of climate change.

Together, these ecosystems form a web that sustains all life on earth, including ours.

By 2020, we need to have defined clear, ambitious, measurable goals and the associated baselines against which each country agrees to be measured. We need clear Science Based Targets for biodiversity applicable to sectors, to communities, to cities and to countries.

And we need to define an “apex target” for biodiversity. An apex target that presents the equivalent of the 1.5 degrees for climate change such that we can communicate more clearly.

This will take a movement. By 2020, we need to have mobilized the public at large, the media, the gardeners, the nature loves, the young people who are not only tomorrow’s leaders, but who are showing us that they are – at young and tender ages – better stewards of nature than we have been. We need to mobilize the private sector, a sector that underpins growth and jobs and wellbeing, we need to support our farmers so that they can be part of the solution and we need to shift our policies to incentivize nature positive actions. So much to do.

Everyone truly has one thing that they can do for nature. Because nature does everything for us.

And because our natural world is so intimately connected to everything that we strive for in this great vision, if we get the last part right – if we get biodiversity right – our hopes of getting the rest right are greatly, greatly enhanced.

Because if we get biodiversity right, it will help provide decent work and prosperity for thousands of small and large communities around the world.

Because if we get biodiversity right, we can get food security and water security right.

Because if we get biodiversity right, we have an immeasurable assistance in getting climate mitigation and adaptation right.

Because if we get biodiversity right, we will be taking a major step towards ensuring Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Because if we get biodiversity right, we will have moved much closer to making cities and communities sustainable.

And yes, if we get biodiversity right, we will have a much greater chance of ensuring world peace.

There is strong commitment to conserve the wealth nature represents to humanity. But we need continued ambitious action to make sure we do not veer off the path to a sustainable future. This will require a special type of leadership. It will require an unflagging leadership with great vision, dedication and one that is able to mobilize at a global level.

This is exactly the type of leadership that each of you have shown in making arrangements for this, Ireland’s first National Biodiversity Conference. Leadership. To do #OneThingForNature. Leadership to demonstrate that everyone has a role.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am an optimist. I don’t think anyone can go into my line of work and not be an optimist! I see the 2020s as the decade when humanity will rise to the challenge. I see the 2020s as the decade that will realize that carefully crafted common vision for 2030. I see the 2020s as the decade that will change the world, for the better

I thank you.