Biodiversity in Crisis - 2008

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The loss of biological diversity is at a crisis point in Ontario. It is happening now and it will continue to get worse without concerted action. In conjunction with climate change, the continuing loss of biodiversity is arguably among the most pressing issues that the Government of Ontario must address in the 21st century. Left unchecked, future generations will face an ecological reality that bears little resemblance to the Ontario that we know today.

Biological diversity or biodiversity can be understood simply as the variety of life on Earth. It is the variability of native species and the wealth of ecological systems, of which they are a part, forming a layer of life around the planet known as the biosphere. The biosphere has been described as uniting the innumerable plants, animals, and microbes physically and chemically with the atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere into one massive ecological system within which millions of species thrive.

Biodiversity has intrinsic and inherent value. Yet, it also is the foundation upon which human well-being depends for the services that the natural environment provides. Biodiversity is inextricably linked with the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fertile soils we depend upon for our food, and the lands upon which we depend for our natural resources. Thought of another way, biodiversity is about our rivers and lakes, our forests and wetlands, the songbirds we see in our backyards, and even those animals, like woodland caribou or wolves, that live in remote wilderness areas.

By its nature, biodiversity is profoundly complex, and extremely vulnerable to human impacts. It is estimated that species extinction rates have increased by as much as 1,000 times above the natural background rates that were typical over Earth’s history until the last several centuries. Between 1970 and 2000, the average abundance of some 3,000 wild species declined by about 40 per cent globally. Trends like these may seem abstract as they speak to the planet at large, but Ontario is squarely in the midst of this global environmental crisis.

Despite our own dependence on biodiversity, threats caused by human actions are primarily responsible for the loss of biodiversity. The most significant threats are habitat alteration and loss, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2001 and based on the contributions of 1,360 experts from 95 countries, concluded:

  • biodiversity is being lost at rates unprecedented in human history;
  • losses of biodiversity and decline of ecosystem services constitute a concern for human well-being, especially for the well-being of the poorest;
  • the costs of biodiversity loss borne by society are rarely assessed, but evidence suggests that they are often greater than the benefits gained through ecosystem changes;
  • drivers of loss of biodiversity and the drivers of change in ecosystem services are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity;
  • many successful response options have been used, but further progress in addressing biodiversity loss will require additional actions to address the main drivers of biodiversity loss; and,
  • unprecedented additional efforts will be required to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss at all levels.

ECO Comment

The trends are quite clear: biodiversity is being lost at the fastest pace in human history, and will continue unless substantial actions are taken. The root causes of the loss of biodiversity are also clear. The Ontario government has the responsibility and authority to address this issue. However, what remains to be seen is what actions the Ontario government takes to address this environmental crisis. There is little room or time for complacency.

Canada is among the 190 countries that are parties to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The commitment of the international community, made in 2002, is “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.” This 2010 Biodiversity Target was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. The international community has agreed that, “Unprecedented additional efforts are needed, and these must be squarely focused on addressing the main drivers of biodiversity loss.”

In 2005, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) released Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy. In principle, the strategy is a means for Ontario to address its specific responsibilities that we – as Canadians and as an international community – have pledged to tackle. This strategy did mark a notable shift in attitude by the provincial government; for the frst time, it explicitly recognized that Ontario has some responsibility to take action to conserve biodiversity.

Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy contains 37 recommendations. Upon its initial release, 10 priority actions were identified to be undertaken in 2005. Since that time, no new priority actions have been identified. An interim biodiversity report was released in May 2008; it was not unanimously accepted by the Ontario Biodiversity Council that drafted it, in part, due to the almost total absence of any new initiatives being identified.

Without question, conserving biodiversity is a provincial interest and a government-wide responsibility. However, there is scant evidence that the Ontario government has taken this mandate to heart or views conserving biodiversity as its direct responsibility. For example, the strategy itself does not detail which ministries are responsible for what actions, nor does it contain any timelines for any implementation measures. The ECO noted in our 2005-2006 Annual Report, “A successful biodiversity strategy should not attempt to be all things to all people. Its first and foremost focus should be the conservation of biodiversity. There are already a multitude of other government programs, policies, and strategies that seek to capitalize on the province’s natural resources and promote economic growth.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stressed in 2006 that to effectively address this crisis, “Implementation must occur across sectors, with biodiversity issues integrated into… policies, programmes and strategies on trade, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and into development planning.” As the lead ministry, MNR has not even met with any other provincial ministries – such as those dealing with environment, mining, municipal affairs, agriculture, transportation, energy, aboriginal affairs, or education – to ensure that this issue is being addressed by all responsible branches of government.

The urgency of the biodiversity crisis does not appear to register on the government’s radar. MNR’s focus is limited to developing a baseline report for the year 2010 that outlines the current state of knowledge about Ontario’s biodiversity.

While such information is unequivocally necessary, it is incumbent on the Ontario government to enact concrete measures – now, in 2010, and beyond – to actually conserve biodiversity. The United Nation’s Millenium Ecosystem Assessment notes that,

"...precise answers are seldom needed to devise an effective understanding of where biodiversity is, how it is changing over space and time, the drivers responsible for such change, the consequences of such change for ecosystem services and human well-being, and the response options available.”

There has been a distinct lack of new initiatives to conserve biodiversity, beyond those that were announced in 2005 or earlier. For example, the introduction of the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act and the Endangered Species Act, 2007 were important milestones. However, in the intervening period, progress has substantially slowed. One positive step that has been committed to by the Premier in July 2008 is that the Ontario government will undertake the protection of 225,000 km2 of land in northern Ontario.

This lack of action is overwhelmingly disappointing. In part, the ECO believes this inaction is attributable to insufficient allocation of funding and human resources. It also seems that the Ontario government does not appear to see or appreciate the bigger picture, as set forth so cogently in the UN’s 2010 Biodiversity Target.

Consequently, Ontario is missing its opportunity to be a global leader in conserving biodiversity. Many of the small steps that the government has undertaken involve off-loading responsibilities to third-parties, such as non-governmental organizations or volunteer committees. It is true that governments alone cannot solve this crisis. However, side-stepping responsibility is not the solution. The public expects the Ontario government to be the steward of province’s biodiversity: its forests, wetlands, wildlife, fsheries, and species at risk.

While it may be surprising to some, there is no law in Ontario that actually obligates the government even to monitor biodiversity, let alone expressly conserve it across the province. In part, this is an historical artifact as government ministries have largely been responsible for the management of natural resources for consumptive purposes, coming at the expense of conservation for its own sake.

The ECO is profoundly concerned about the lack of deliberate, systematic, and coordinated government action to conserve Ontario’s biological diversity. All too often, ministries such as MNR are seemingly forced into a conflicted role, having to advocate for the very resource extraction and utilization undertakings that can jeopardize biodiversity. Instead, their roles should be cast as champions of biodiversity in order to effectively stave off this environmental crisis and to uphold the public interest.

Conserving biodiversity should be clearly acknowledged as a provincial priority and interest. MNR has the responsibility and legislative authority to be the lead ministry, but the obligation to take action should be reflected in the applicable policies and programs of all other ministries that have an impact on Ontario’s biodiversity. The ECO believes that the Statements of Environmental Values (SEVs) of all prescribed ministries should specify this obligation, in addition to detailing the measures that will be put into effect to conserve biodiversity by each branch of government.

Recommendation 6:

The ECO recommends that all prescribed ministries develop detailed action plans that specify the measures to conserve biodiversity that they will undertake.

This is an article from the 2007/08 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2008. "Biodiversity in Crisis." Getting to K(No)w, ECO Annual Report, 2007-08. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 76-82.