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Impacts: vanishing biodiversity

Vanishing biodiversity

(Image: Sonny Whitelaw)

Vanishing biodiversity


“Billions of individuals, millions of kinds of plants and animals, dazzling in their variety and richness, working together to benefit from the energy of the sun and minerals from the earth, leading lives that interlock in such a way that they sustain each other… We rely entirely on this life-support machine. And it relies entirely on its biodiversity to run smoothly. Destroying biodiversity will lead to a place in which we cannot live.– Sir David Attenborough: A Perfect Planet (2021)

“Restoring a third of the areas most degraded by humans and preserving remaining natural ecosystems would prevent 70% of projected extinctions of mammals, birds and amphibians. It would also sequesteralmost half of the total atmospheric CO2 increase since the Industrial Revolution.” – Strassburg et al, 2020

“Biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand, along with the rest of the world, is in a general state of crisis.Department of Conservation

New Zealand exceeds its national share of the global biosphere integrity boundary by a factor of 3.4, averaging 58% compared with the global average of 75%.” – Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

“Climate change will affect terrestrial biodiversity through warming air temperatures, an increased intensity of severe weather events and rising sea levels. However, a thriving biodiversity can also be part of the solution, providing resilience to some of the predicted impacts of climate change.”  – Christie et al, Department of Conservation

Much of New Zealand’s biodiversity has already been lost (Fig. 1) or fragmented to the point where critical life supporting ecosystem services are failing.

The losses are continuing with little or no consequences to landowners who deliberately destroy native habitats.

Climate change is placing even more pressure on natural ecosystems, undermining their ability to help us mitigate the impacts and adapt to changes (Fig. 2).

Soil biodiversity, which is crucial to our existence, , is largely ignored except where it affects the amount of food we can grow.

Fig. 1: What remains of New Zealand’s native forests. Other ecosystems including wetlands, dunelands, and braided rivers have suffered equally widespread net losses (i.e. the difference between losses and gains) of indigenous cover types between 1996 and 2018. For indigenous forests, scrub and shrublands, this loss was 40,800 ha, and for indigenous grasslands it was 44,800 ha. (p47 DOC1) (Image: DOC/Christie)

Humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy it leaves to future generations. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the Biodiversity Targets will be fully met, in turn undermining efforts to address climate change.”  – Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (2020)

Fig. 2: How climate change will directly and indirectly impact biodiversity (Image DOC/Christie)

The following is from the 2020 Department of Conservation report (pages 51-52) Biodiversity in Aotearoa: an overview of state, trends and pressures

Climate change | Te panoni āhuarangi

New Zealand’s biodiversity will come under increasing pressure as a result of global climate change (Christie et al. 2020). Pressures such as ecosystem fragmentation and pests will also likely be exacerbated (McGlone et al. 2010). It is difficult to know precisely how New Zealand’s biodiversity will respond to climate change in the long term. This is partly because the country’s climate is already highly variable, and partly because for land ecosystems many species and habitat types are now restricted in range as a result of vegetation clearance and the introduction of invasive pests (McGlone et al. 2010).

Some species and ecosystems will be more vulnerable to climate change than others (McGlone et al. 2010). For instance, the sex of a tuatara embryo is determined by the ambient temperature, so that warming will produce more males than females (Mitchell et al. 2010). Native peketua/frogs need moist conditions to survive (Newman et al. 2013), as do land snails (Walker 2003), and kiwi need soft ground to probe for worms (Cunningham & Castro 2011), so any changes resulting in a drier climate are likely to have impacts on those species. Similarly, kōura/freshwater crayfish have been shown to be highly sensitive to climate change, primarily because of their habitat specialisation (Hossain et al. 2018). In the freshwater environment, species such as alpine galaxias, which has a restricted distribution and is reliant on colder water temperatures, will be vulnerable to the warmer temperatures and drought associated with climate change (Boddy & McIntosh 2016). Intertidal marine creatures may be subjected to warmer air temperatures when the tides are out (Willis et al. 2007). Projected future increases in ocean temperatures are also expected to have large knock-on effects for the ocean food web and fish species (Law et al. 2017). The consequences for seabirds of changes in the Southern Ocean climate are still largely unclear (Barbraud et al. 2012). Climate change may cause shifts in the distribution of prey species and the flooding of low-lying colonies, while increased storminess may interfere with provisioning, foraging and fledging.

Some ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change. Particular examples are the susceptibility of marine ecosystems to warming temperatures and ocean acidification (Law et al. 2017); coastal ecosystems to sea level rise and storm surges (Bell et al. 2017); freshwater ecosystems to drought and flooding (MfE & Stats NZ 2018) and, indirectly, through increased human demand for water (Robertson et al. 2016). Increased demand for irrigation could deplete freshwater wetlands, streams and rivers, and allow saltwater to intrude into aquifers (McGlone & Walker 2011). Ocean acidification, warming oceans and sea level rise could have significant impacts on marine species (including seabirds) and the ecosystem services associated with them, such as food production (Lundquist et al. 2011, Pinkerton 2017; MPI 2019a). Meanwhile, alpine ecosystems will also experience changes with rising snow lines and temperatures (Hendrikx et al. 2012).

Climate change will also compound many existing threats. For now, the ranges of some animal pests (e.g. ship rats, hedgehogs and wasps) are partially constrained by cold temperatures, so they may expand – latitudinally and altitudinally – with warming temperatures (Christie 2014). These pests may survive in greater abundance, expanding their ranges upslope into higher alpine elevations than where they currently occur, creating a ‘thermal squeeze’ situation for native species. Invasive invertebrate species, which may not survive the winter season in Aotearoa at present, may at some point be able to persist (Ward et al. 2010; Lester et al. 2013; Lester & Beggs 2018). Similarly, some weeds and invasive pathogens (e.g. myrtle rust) could respond in a similar way (McGlone et al. 2010; Beresford et al. 2018). Fires will also likely start more frequently and burn for longer (Pearce et al. 2011), giving the advantage to fire-tolerant weeds (Perry et al. 2014). Taonga species important to Māori will also be vulnerable to the interacting drivers of climate change and pest invasion. Reductions in the ranges of taonga species and altered timing of biological events (e.g. flowering and fruiting) could impact on tikanga Māori. Furthermore, traditional mātauranga of environmental signals used for tikanga could be disrupted by climate change, and could affect the social fabric of whānau, hapū and iwi by compounding the loss of knowledge for rangatahi (King et al. 2013).

The human response to climate change may also bring further threats. Mass planting of exotic trees – while beneficial for carbon sequestration – could displace native vegetation, harbour weeds, alter water availability or heighten fire risk (Christie 2014).

The dangerous financial lure of exotic plantation forestry

“Unfortunately, existing structures and mechanisms favour the planting of exotics species (Pinus radiata in particular) over New Zealand native species. Changes and further incentives are needed to reduce the feasibility and viability gap between exotics and natives, and ‘level the playing field’.” – The Aoteaora Circle

Of the many threats to biodiversity, the lure of planting commercial pine forests is potentially the most insidious because it financially incentivises a short term ‘solution’ to climate change through the NZ missions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The current ETS does not factor in the full life-cycle cost of forestry: that is, carbon emissions from maintaining, harvesting, transporting, and converting plantation trees into wood products and/or shipping them to other places and countries.

Exotic plants allow 2.5 times more carbon dioxide to be released from the soil compared to natives. Non-native plants interact differently with insects and soil microbes than native plants, which has dramatic consequences for carbon cycling. Many of New Zealand’s non-native plants grow faster than natives, which means they can store carbon more quickly. However, the same traits that allow faster growth also support microorganisms that return CO2 to the atmosphere at a faster rate.” – Waller et al.

Moreover, because it promises a financial income from carbon credits, particularly for farmers living on ‘marginal’ land, i.e. land that is not otherwise viewed as financially profitable, mass planting of exotic trees to sell carbon credits or burn the wood for bioenergy, (and find someone to put all CO2 that will release) could further displace native vegetation, harbour weeds, alter water availability, and/or heighten fire risk.

The co-benefits of essential life-supporting ecosystem services, carbon sequestration, and climate change adaptation capabilities of a healthy biodiversity are currently undervalued or ignored in the ETS.

“Natural regeneration is occurring on Banks Peninsula on a massive scale, but because it is not financially incentivised we increasingly see large areas destroyed by aerial spraying as landowners perceive native vegetation or its nurse canopy as an invasive weed affecting income rather than carbon sequestration with potential to earn income. We submit that this is utterly counterproductive to the goals of the Climate Change Response Act. At best carbon sequestered in these naturally regenerating areas is not being included on the national register, at worst it is being replaced with methane emitting pastoral farming.” –  Submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee hearings for the Climate Change Response Bill, February 2020



Ecosystems are made up of communities of living organisms plus the physical and chemical environment in which they live. A healthy ecosystem is able to maintain the full range of the living organisms that normally inhabit that ecosystem, through ecosystem services that are provided by and for these organisms. The physical environment means the space they physically exist in to maintain healthy populations that are genetically diverse, and the conditions such as water availability and temperature. The chemical environment includes the ability to exchange life-supporting nutrients including oxygen, nitrogen, etc. and additionally in the oceans, salinity and PH.

See  ‘ecosystem services‘ and find out more about Canterbury’s ecosystems (this website).

BECCS: Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (growing radiata pine for energy)

“We found that in a majority of the areas where forests will be replaced more carbon is stored by keeping the forests.” – Smolter and Ernsting

BECCs is favoured by the IPCC in its modelling: plant lots of fast growing plants such as radiata pine, cut them down, burn them (‘bioenergy’) capture the CO2, inject the gas underground and hope it stays there or sell it for Enhanced Oil Recovery (pushing the gas underground to force out more oil), burn that newly recovered oil, adding more CO2 into the atmosphere, grow more radiata pine…repeat.

Despite the fact that Enhanced Oil Recovery leads to the recovery and burning of potentially vast quantities of fossil fuels which would otherwise have remained under the ground, use of CO2 for this purpose is classed as a form of CCS, a claim accepted even by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ” – Smolter and Ernsting

For BECCS to work, it would mean replacing much of the existing native forest on the planet with fast growing trees, destroying irreplaceable, life-supporting ecosystem services and releasing carbon locked up in those forests and their soils. Additionally, by 2100 BECCs would also need to use around 25-46% of the land currently used to feed people (Video 2). While New Zealand may find ways to avoid some of these problems, the same cannot be said for developing nations keen to cash in other nations’ (including New Zealand’s) need to purchase carbon offsets in order to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is expected to capture, on average, around 130 billion tonnes of carbon via planting crops for biofuel that are then burnt in power stations…. It is expected that an additional area of one or two times the size of India is needed for bioenergy crops by 2050.” – Dr Anna Harper, University of Exeter.

Video 2: BECCS: the not-so good, the bad, and the really really bad.

My colleagues and I find that expansion of bioenergy in order to meet the 1.5C limit could cause net losses in carbon from the land surface. Instead, we find that protecting and expanding forests could be more effective options for meeting the Paris Agreement. ” – Dr Anna Harper, University of Exeter

References and further reading