Biodiversity: an emergency


We’ll talk a lot about biodiversity this fall at UCLouvain but from an angle that is not often assumed: focusing on the interactions – we wouldn’t dare write ‘synergies’ – between causes of species decline. A conference awaits that will be well worth attending. 

Caroline Nieberding, a professor at the Biodiversity Research Centre (ELIB) and the head of the UCLouvain ‘Evolutionary ecology and genetics’ team, neither minces words nor settles for talk. She’s one of the founders of the We change for life movement, which brings together more than 250 Belgian academics who, through their example, aim to raise the general public’s awareness to change their way of life. ‘We’re experiencing an unprecedented biodiversity crash.’ There, she said it. Calmly, as one states a fact. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) condemned the crash in its May report. The IPBES is to biodiversity what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to climate: a group of international experts, scientists and political representatives who evaluate and synthesise recent scientific publications (more than 15,000 in this case) in various fields to generate an overview of the (ecological as well as socio-political) threats to ecosystems. This goes beyond 'simple' review of endangered or extinct species.

The IPBES released a first report in 2016’, explains Prof. Nieberding, who is co-organising, with her Earth and Life Institute (ELI) colleagues, a 24 October conference (see box). ‘It was dedicated to pollination, and raised awareness of the issues at stake. Last year, the platform published five reports on the state of biodiversity in several regions, such as Europe-Asia. This year's report goes further, summarises the preceding ones, and draws up a global report.'

Accelerating decline

It’s difficult to summarise such a report, but some conclusions require attention, including one that’s in line with the UCLouvain conference: it’s necessary to continue and develop research on biodiversity given that it remains poorly known. While the number of species is estimated at about eight million, we know very little about their habitats and how they live, and even less about the interactions between causes of decline and the chain reactions that take place when a species disappears. The report lists 35 biodiversity 'hot spots' (including the Mediterranean basin, coral reefs, and the tropical forests in the news this summer), which represent only about 2% of the earth's surface but are home to 75% of threatened animal species. The report’s figures are dizzying. About one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, including 40% of amphibians and one-third of marine mammals. At least 680 vertebrate species have disappeared since the 16th century. Most important, the report is the first to isolate and rank the five main factors responsible for this mess. In descending order, they are: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of certain organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. Unfortunately, the report also indicates that, despite some progress, current trajectories will not make it possible to achieve a sustainable exploitation of nature.


It’s an essential report, according to Prof. Nieberding, who would like to go further. ‘At present, we analyse each cause (global warming, fragmentation of habitats) as if it were the only cause of decline, while species suffer all these causes at the same time and at full force. Thus it’s estimated that climate change is responsible for about 8% of biodiversity loss and land use 20%. But in reality, it’s likely that the effects of climate change will be added to those of intensive agriculture. An example: climate change moves species north. But if they don’t find a favourable habitat, they won’t go anywhere, they’ll disappear.

The purpose of the conference is to engage IPCC and IPBES leaders – climate scientists, land use experts, environmentalists, and experts on proposed technological solutions – to see how interactions can affect the evolution of biodiversity.

List the facts

But the conference has another goal that’s essential for Caroline Nieberding: ‘Speaking out is my responsibility. Not saying that the house is on fire is deadly.’ But she knows how difficult it is to raise awareness of a danger that’s not imminent, of problems that seem a priori not to concern us. ‘The link between biodiversity and our daily lives isn’t clear or immediate, especially here in Europe. We have already lost most of our biodiversity. We only shelter about 2% of animal and plant species! And the consequences for us of the decline in biodiversity elsewhere, in the tropics, in the oceans, are still poorly documented. We’re not ‘formatted’, prepared to understand a danger that’s not immediate. I’m sometimes told that I’m an alarmist. But I'm just documenting facts, I'm not asking you to believe. To say that the earth is round isn’t activism, it's a fact. IPCC and IPBES reports are facts, not beliefs.

Henri Dupuis

24 October conference

Entitled ‘How human activities cause biodiversity loss: interactions and relative contributions of human activities; what do we know, what do we need to know?’, the conference is an opportunity for Prof. Nieberding and her Earth and Life Institute colleagues to bring together UCLouvain expertise within the institute. Among the speakers are several ELI members, such as Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (climatologist, former IPCC vice-president), Patrick Meyfroid (who helped draft the IPBES report), Philippe Baret (agronomist) and Michel Crucifix (physicist). Together with other stakeholders, they’ll try to determine the importance of human activities on biodiversity. Presentations will be open to the public and accessible to non-specialists (but in English only). Detailed programme and information.

A glance at Caroline Nieberding's bio

After earning her master’s in biology from the University of Liège, Caroline Nieberding earned a PhD in phylogeography, during which she became interested in the evolutionary and ecological history of the field mouse in Europe. To study it, she conducted research at the Institute of Evolution Sciences of the University of Montpellier (ISEM) in 2002 and 2003, and the Center for Biology and Population Management (CBGP) in 2004. After defending her thesis in July 2005, she pursued a Marie Curie European postdoc at the Institute of Biology in Leiden (Netherlands), where she conducted research on the adaptive evolution of species. Since 2008, she has been a professor of ecology and evolution at UCLouvain in Belgium, and head of the 'Evolutionary ecology and genetics' team. She is a member of Louvain4Evolution, a cross-disciplinary research consortium that conducts projects to understand life and its diversity and common properties in the light of evolution. Eager to share her and other scientists’ research with the general public, she has created a web site.

Published on September 19, 2019