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A Holistic Approach to Regenerative Development Is the Only Way to Halt Biodiversity Loss

Is sustainable development still achievable? I personally think not; damage to the planet is too great and we would need 1.6 planets to sustain current consumption patterns. We need regenerative development: development that builds a viable, if different, future.

Belize Barrier Reef, source: University for International Cooperation

Humanity has taken dangerous steps in pursuit of its 'development', resulting in substantial losses in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Aware of the implications, in 2002 world leaders agreed that by 2010 a "significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss" would be achieved. In the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, in 2010, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated: "...the target has not been met ...the principal pressures leading to biodiversity loss are not just constant but are, in some cases, intensifying. The consequences of this collective failure, if it is not quickly corrected, will be severe for us all."

At the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP10), once again nations agreed that it was of utmost importance to stop the loss and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 was approved, including 20 targets to protect biodiversity, known as the Aichi Targets. With only four years left to meet the targets, a global assessment indicates that Earth is now crossing the "safe" limits for biodiversity loss in over half of the land surface, putting the ability of ecosystems to support human societies at risk. One of the authors, Andy Purvis, states that "decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences - and the biodiversity damage we've had means we're at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we're playing ecological roulette."

Is sustainable development still achievable? I personally think not; damage to the planet is too great and we would need 1.6 planets to sustain current consumption patterns. We need regenerative development: development that builds a viable, if different, future. Impact assessments must not aim at "acceptable" levels. We require all endeavours to regenerate ecosystems and functional landscapes, to strengthen communities' resilience and capacity to adapt to a changing world and allow for local culture and knowledge to flourish and not be lost to global markets. We must use creative management that looks into the future, incorporating climate change and socio-economic scenarios, aligning actions to the achievement of the 'best' or 'less-worse' scenario.

Why is it so hard to stop global change, climate change or biodiversity loss, to reduce poverty and famine and achieve peace? I think it is because we are not prepared to deal with complexity. To blame is the reductionist approach of western education, science and institutions whereby complex systems are divided into components, and studied through highly specialised disciplinary approaches, hoping that by understanding them we understand system function.

We missed the fact that interactions are more relevant, requiring holistic approaches which go beyond trans- or interdisciplinarity. Our universities and academics are heavily ranked by the number of publications in peer reviewed journals, few of which are interested in holistic approaches, making it impossible for researchers to pursue a holistic career even if they wanted to. As a consequence, we are witnessing the extinction of our planet. We have enough science, information and knowledge to understand what is happening but decisions are still being made without them. The current responsibility of a scientist is to publish; 'somebody else' is responsible for assuring that the knowledge reaches and is used by decision makers.

Today, many tools are available for including biodiversity and ecosystem services through valuation (economic or other) . Business and biodiversity platforms have been established and the Global Partnership of Business and Biodiversity assists in this process. We must seek the true integration of biodiversity into business plans and national accounting (Aichi Target 2), beyond philanthropy.

Nevertheless, if we want to halt biodiversity loss, as the fifteenth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 15) seeks to do, or even have success with any of the SDGs, we need to do things differently. Knowledge has to become wisdom. Adapting to a changing world requires deep understanding of ecosystem function and this is tied to local knowledge.

If engineers want to be actors in regenerative development, they must look beyond the boundaries of their profession. Technocratic solutions will be crucial to assist in solving some of the issues but we need to go beyond technology and current science. Cosmetic fixes are not enough if we really want to achieve a new paradigm for development. Instead, we must incorporate solid values, ethics and transparency into all economic, political and societal action, using instruments like the Earth Charter and Pope Francis' Encyclical letter Laudato Si' , if we are to better meet the complex and interactive problems our planet faces.

These issues and others like it will be discussed at the Engineering a Better World: CAETS 2016, which will explore how engineering can drive progress towards the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and transform the future of the world we live in through cross-country partnerships and collaboration.

Hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London on 13-14 September 2016, the event will bring together engineering institutions and international development professionals from around the world.