Time to face the facts

Sir Michael Barber
May 27 · 5 min read

The recent terrifying UN report on the steep decline in global biodiversity rightly generated headline news around the world. Then, as ever with such news, it disappeared from public debate as fast as it had appeared. As our attention shifts and shifts again, what should governments be doing to address the profound challenges set out in the report?

Let’s start with the scale of the challenge. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) might have come up with a snappier name for themselves but their work is the most impressive and comprehensive summary of what we, human beings, have done to our planet in the last few decades.

The picture the report paints is daunting to say the least:

  • Of the 8 million species (including plants and insects as well as animal life) up to one million are threatened with extinction.
  • The rate of global species extinction in recent decades is at least ten times and perhaps as much as 100 times faster than the rate over the previous 10 million years.
  • 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction by human actions in the last five centuries.
  • 10 percent of all insects are threatened (and whatever you think about creepy-crawly things, insects are fundamental to any successful eco-system).
  • 75 percent of the terrestrial environment and 66 percent of marine environments have been ‘severely altered’ by human actions.

And what has caused this immense damage to life on earth?

First, the rapid growth of the human population which has tripled to 7.5bn just in my lifetime. As a result, the relentless drive for food and raw materials has been overwhelming — 12 percent of the world’s ice-free land is used for crop production and an incredible 25 percent for grazing. (All those hamburgers…). And 50 percent of that agricultural expansion has been at the expense of forests.

Second, mining and industrial activity on land and at sea have done damage estimated at $5 trillion, much of the cost of which will ultimately have to be picked up by taxpayers.

Third, climate change, which we are just coming to terms with, has also becoming a major threat to biodiversity through the threat it poses to habitats and species.

Put bluntly, this can’t go on. To use an overused phrase in its literal meaning, this is unsustainable.

Everyone — individuals, communities, businesses — can play a part in responding by changing the way they live and work. But in the end, the response will have to led by governments. It is after all the role of government to set the rules for society and allocate scarce resources and therefore to set priorities.

Given our global circumstances, as set out in the IPBES report, there is an urgent need for governments to act.


What might that look like? Here are six tasks.

1. Tell people how it is

It is a mark of great political leadership to be able to level with people about the state of affairs. We can’t pretend any longer that we can go on living our lives like this and wreaking so much destruction as a consequence — that message needs to be conveyed powerfully and repeatedly. Great political leaders are able simultaneously to confront the brutal facts AND inspire hope. They point the way to a better future. Who will provide that leadership country by country and globally?

2. Develop policies that will address the challenges

Meet the Paris Accord climate change targets not as an end but as a significant first step, as, for example, the governments in Canada and the UK are doing. It is great to see 25 big cities in the US working with Bloomberg Philanthropies to meet the Paris targets in spite of the federal government’s abandonment of them.

Now something similar is needed on biodiversity. Not easy but vital, again country by country and globally. A good place to start would be to withdraw subsidies that actively encourage environmentally destructive agriculture or forestry and target the same money towards sustainable land use.

3. Ensure an environmentally (including biodiversity and climate change aspects) informed perspective on policy in general

Promote public transport, reduce dramatically fossil fuel dependency, limit car use in cities, invest in renewable energy, ensure buildings are intelligent and sustainable, protect species, protect landscapes and eco-systems.

Assess the environmental impact of any policy before embarking on it. For example, governments fund the building of schools and hospitals and incentivise house-building. Do they encourage the use of renewable energy, sustainable materials or traditional local materials?

You only have to list such things to realise how hard it will be to do — the status quo won’t give up without a fight.

4. Educate for the future

The IPBES argue that there is hope only if there is ‘transformative change’ — by which they mean ‘a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors including paradigms, goals and values.’ Fundamentally that means changing attitudes and to do that education in the broadest meaning of the term needs to change.

The way we educate children and young people, the way we conduct public discourse, the attitude we take to living things…all of it.

5. Encourage ethical behaviour among businesses and other large institutions

Businesses often focus on maximising profit in the short-term and sometimes do so by externalising costs, which then fall on the taxpayer. The leading economist Professor Dieter Helm makes the point simply — the polluter should pay. Moreover, businesses should take an ethical standpoint and mean it. This is where all of us as active consumers and citizens can play a part. Governments can change regulatory frameworks.

6. Build global coalitions

Governments need to collaborate since clearly the challenges of biodiversity and climate change transcend national boundaries. The Paris Accords were a magnificent achievement but as we’ve seen since, the politics of implementation are hard and demand courage. You can see what this looks like in the current debate in Canada about carbon-pricing as their election looms.

Overall though, sadly, there is more distrust among governments now than for decades. That is a problem. The Economist front cover for May 18, 2019 is entitled “A new kind of cold war.” Chilling. Conflict would be catastrophic, perhaps fatal to humanity. But even a mere lack of agreement on what the fundamental challenges are and how to tackle them would be damaging and, if things are left to drift much longer, might take us past the point of no return.

In these circumstances global coalitions can’t just be about governments — they need to be about all of us and all kinds of organisations. For example, I heard the Pope speak out boldly earlier in the year for an end to hunger by 2030 through sustainable agriculture. This is achievable incidentally but not remotely so with current approaches.

Note that none of the above fall neatly into our traditional political categories of left and right. We will need new political paradigms too.


None of this is easy but we’ve done difficult things before. Time to face the stark facts and get real. In Bob Dylan’s words, ‘Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.’

Sir Michael Barber

Written by

Founder and Chairman at Delivery Associates and Chair of the Office for Students . Author, How to Run a Government, (published by Penguin 26 March 2015).

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