Planet Earth is seen as our common home. But in fact, we don’t just inhabit the whole Planet, we live in specific terrestrial environments because we need the services they provide us: these ecosystem services include for example habitat provision, water and air purification, climate regulation, food and raw material provision, but also cultural services. Humans have always benefited from these services and even mastered some of them, first through agriculture, wood-cutting, hunting… but slowly, and as their numbers grew, humans have largely modified lands to suit their needs, rendering them overall less habitable for other species. And although humans don’t generally inhabit oceans, they have become especially skilled at destroying marine habitats. In particular, humans have been the main drivers of habitat loss, which is

the outcome of a process of land-use change in which an area inhabited by a variety of species of fauna and flora is severely degraded, therefore largely reducing biodiversity and ecosystem services derived from this area.

This process may be directly and indirectly driven by human-made or natural factors, and in turn leads to other environmental problems (such as reduction of genetic pool, soil degradation, etc.), feeding a vicious circle of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

If habitat loss is seen as a grave threat for our planet, or indeed the greatest threat to the variety of life on this planet today, how to solve it still seems a mystery! But in this blog post, we will attempt to demystify the actors involved in this process, and especially the institutions that try to combat habitat loss.

Global environmental problems are not new but they are growing in scale, scope, visibility, as well as complexity: preventing all habitat loss cannot happen suddenly, especially without leadership. This is why numerous institutional actors are trying to tackle this issue, but do so, they first need to define the problem. For instance, the well-known International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the German development agency GIZ describe habitat loss as:

"an area that has become totally unsuitable for a species"

while others such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) describe it more mildly as:

"the which a 'natural', habitat-type is removed and replaced by another habitat-type"

The difference between definitions poses a problem, as we need to use a common discourse to share the same understanding of the world; besides, one needs a strict definition to be able to assess the extent of the environmental damage, investigate its causes and consequences, and conduct comparisons. Dennis (2008) indeed remarks that “although habitat loss underlies the current biodiversity crisis, it is far from clear what is meant by habitat loss or, for that matter, habitat. Herein, a distinction is made between the traditional use of the term habitat as a biotope and the functional habitat, arising from the recent resource-based habitat paradigm… Habitat loss … incorporate[s] not only habitat reduction but also fragmentation and degradation.

Map showing protected areas in red, and “higher priority for conservation that contribute more to the safeguarding of species habitat” (in yellow) and lower priority areas (in blue). Click on the map to explore it (external link). Screenshot from the website of © Half-Earth Project
The crane, a weapon of choice to damage habitats. (Landscape with mostly uninhabited mountains due to altitude and adverse geological conditions; lake mostly used for recreational and transportation purposes; and lakeside in construction, leading to land conversion and fragmentation.) © Camille François. Spiez, Switzerland.

Habitat loss is a problem of immense magnitude in part because there exist a myriad of ways to destroy habitats.

  • Destruction might be caused by fires (natural, accidental, slash-and-burn), deforestation (for timber, for agriculture), or land conversion (agricultural expansion, forestry, plantations, urban sprawl), etc.

  • Degradation might be caused amongst others by different kinds of pollution, invasive species, bad management, or climate change.

  • Fragmentation is caused when habitats are ‘cut’ by roads, rails, electricity lines, dams, or other similar infrastructures.

Visible clues of the modification and damage caused to a Greenland seaside habitat, notably buildings, pipelines, road, cars, boats, and cranes. © Camille François. Greenland.

Contrary to other environmental issues invisible to the naked eye, signs of habitat loss are easily visible for those that see it in that way, as illustrated above – pipelines amongst small glaciers make for a particular stark contrast.

“Habitat destruction is universally the most dominant threat” to biodiversity.

IUCN, 2007

As seen above with the Half-Earth map, habitat degradation is so serious it can be seen from space, not only through software that adds colours to a map, but also visibly. Indeed, Fauna and Flora International find that a third of the world’s forest cover have been cleared, and a further 20% degraded. For instance, in Indonesia, “over six million hectares of primary forest – an area twice the size of Belgium – were lost between 2000 and 2012“.

With a habitat quickly becoming fragmented, damaged or destroyed, and often without the ability to quickly move far away, the only outcome for most fauna and flora is death.

Sources: EU (2004), IUCN (2015), IUCN (2007)

Meanwhile, we still only have limited knowledge of marine and freshwater habitats, but it is thought that habitat loss is the second biggest threat after overexploitation, and the biggest threat for freshwater species.

Habitat loss may have natural causes, such as fires or pest infestations, but it is clearly anthropogenic. At the end of the 20th century, already 20% of the world population was living in biodiversity hotspots, which only cover 12% of land.

In the new geological area of the Anthropocene, everything now revolves around humans (“anthropocentrism”), and humans have lost their close relationship with nature, even going so far as considering it a commodity.

Considering the risks habitat loss may pose to humans, fauna, and flora, how can such damage to habitats be justifiable?

Humans do rightly argue that they have a “right to development”, and they indeed have the right to food security and family procreation, but this creates tensions, as population growth leads to an increase in (unregulated) demand for a variety of products, notably food. As a consequence, agriculture is expanding land use in about 70% of countries and land-use change puts further pressure on biodiversity. Therefore, addressing indirect factors causing habitat loss, such as increased access to contraception or migratory policies may have positive effects on biodiversity.

However, a problem remains: environmental changes are not necessarily visible instantaneously—notably habitat degradation—and especially not on large scales. This “extinction debt” therefore makes us underestimate our level of threat to biodiversity. This also shows the need to address the roots of the problem, namely the increased pressure of humans on their environment through population growth and increased consumption.

Considering the magnitude of habitat loss globally and the danger to which it leads, it is not surprising that numerous governmental and non-governmental actors try tackling this issue.

In the realm of global environmental politics, numerous actors have different roles, expertise, and power, that may evolve over time. A common way of classifying these actors in five categories is: (1) nation states; (2) international organisations (IOs); and non-state actors, amongst which (3) experts; (4) the corporate sector; and the global environmental movement, made of (5) non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society, individual leaders, etc.

Network graph that presents some of the main actors addressing the issue of habitat loss (to different extents), as well as some of the most important treaties or initiatives. Many actors have multiple, strong connections with other actors, but a limited number of them work more in isolation, which may create some redundancy in the work they do as they may lack coordination. However, an important number of actors are part of coalitions or bound together by programmes or treaties, ensuring they work towards common goals.

Each category has its own strength; while IOs provide a forum for collective decision-making and are responsible for implementing global policies (some of which are binding for nation-states), corporations may wield their economic power, and experts provide knowledge on which to base negotiations and decisions, for instance.

Nonetheless, most of these actors’ legitimacy may be questioned to some extent, as they may not be held publicly accountable, nor have they been elected for the most part.

If global environmental actors have met some successes in the past (such as the textbook case of the Montreal Protocol, which banned ozone-depleting substances), their failure to properly address global environmental issues may lead us to question whether there is an essential flaw in global environmental governance.

The network analysis above is a very simple graph of some of the main actors and agreements, but in reality, international governance is increasingly dense and complex. Its complexity may seem problematic, and although it does lead to potential competition, inefficient allocation of resources (such as time, funding, etc.), and ultimately, lacking results; this is counterbalanced by a number of advantages. Complexity can notably enhance cooperation, allow overlapping of interests, and lead to spillover benefits or positive trade-offs. For instance, a convention’s objectives can be enhanced by the actions of NGOs locally and the support of civil society, as well as IOs’ partner support, and they can also overlap with other complementary agreements, and so on.

What is particularly interesting with this complexity is that looking at institutions in isolation provide a very different understanding than a symbiotic and holistic vision of the system.

However, some advocate for an umbrella global environmental institution that would be created to address the wide-ranging environmental issues. It could be “a new ‘gravity centre’” that would ensure better cooperation between actors, helping overcome “the cumbersome process of setting binding international standards“, improving supervision and enforcement, and mitigating the disruption caused by non-environmental institutions. Its impact would however be severely limited if no change is made to intergovernmental decision-making procedures, and would be vastly redundant to the work of the many actors already addressing environmental issues.

Additionally, the bigger and more representative the institution, the harder it is to reach a consensus. The United Nations (UN), for instance, tend to stay “neutral” on many issues. Existing intergovernmental environmental institutions do warn of an incoming climate and biodiversity catastrophe, but only weakly call for radical action, as it may not be widely accepted. By wanting too much participation, one might lose the depth of engagement. A balance can be difficult to strike, but some seem to have achieved it, such as the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, also called Bern Convention. Being formed by a rather homogenous group of countries (mostly EU member states), it is easier for them to reach consensus, adopt new recommendations, and monitor progress.

To learn more about the Convention and its participation gaps, click on the image below to watch the video.

Not only is the European Union the main participant in the Bern Convention (both collectively and through member states’ initiatives), is also involved in protecting biodiversity and habitats through other means, such as with the 1992 Habitats Directive, which differs from the Bern Convention in that it is “mandatorily transposed to national laws of EU countries“. This Directive led to the creation of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas that are supported by the LIFE-Nature programme which also finances environmental conservation projects.

The Bern Convention does not work in isolation, it partners with other environmental institutions, such as groups of experts, or national and international NGOs that monitor the Convention’s recommendations implementation and are regularly invited to attend meetings.

A number of agreements aim to directly address the causes and consequences of habitat loss, notably by acting on diverse topics like migratory or endangered species, biodiversity, or coastal areas. The Bern Convention in particular is present at all stages of the process—if we compare the evolution of habitat loss to a story, like in the infographic below, the Convention would address the issue from the initial situation (preventative measures) to the solution (remedial measures), although this does not mean that the Convention is always successful.

The Bern Convention members, in conjunction with other organisations, as part as other projects (such as Natura 2000), and with other targets in mind (such as the Aichi targets of the CBD) have led to rather satisfactory results in terms of surface of protected land in Europe. If the total protected area in Europe even exceeds the global Aichi target in 2020, it hides problems such as the lack of appropriate management, high human pressure on land, or fragmentation, and therefore lowers the level of protection that might be expected.

So, why is the Bern Convention only partially successful?

This could be due to multiple factors, such as its weak enforcement mechanisms, limited power, but also because it does not address the indirect causes that affect natural habitats. It may also be due to its lack of influence amongst non-governmental actors, considering its very close allegiance to the European Union. Its performance may also be hard to assess in isolation from the Habitats Directive, for instance, as both have similar objectives. Besides, the Bern Convention seems to attract relatively little interest: its online presence, as well as the number of external assessments or articles that consider the Bern Convention—especially as a whole, rather than focusing on a species or region—is sorely limited. With few external, public critiques, the Bern Convention can only count on its internal members to improve its structure and efficiency, despite them having a seemingly overly positive view of their own work.

Similarly, while looking at institutional efficiency, Gutner and Thompson (2010) found that some international organisations tended to “use their authority, knowledge and rules to act autonomously in ways that may or may not reflect the interests and mandates of states” and found that bureaucratic malfunction could indeed affect their performance. This is however hard to assess from an external standpoint. They also pointed out that institutions are often the products of state interests, which is especially the case for the Bern Convention as it has extremely close links to the European Union, and is accountable to the member states of which it is composed. It is therefore challenging for them to act independently, for instance in taking a more radical position.

Nonetheless, it has to be noted that the Bern Convention is not the only international environmental institution that has little efficiency in treating the problem at hand. Indeed, the effectiveness of international institutions depends not only on its features but also those of the environmental problem and on the wider international context.

Therefore, finding out what makes an institution efficient is complex, but as we have seen, complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. If there existed a magical recipe to create effective international environmental institutions, the Planet would not be in its current state!

Habitat loss is not a mystery for us anymore. We understood its context, its causes, and also the complexity in addressing it.

What is more challenging is finding how to address the problem on a large scale. International environmental institutions have a wider reach and are therefore well-positioned to address global or regional environmental issues. By coordinating efforts and providing the necessary support for implementing regulations leading to concrete actions, the Bern Convention has done important progress regarding habitat loss in Europe, which is complemented by other actors.

However, other institutions with different features may encounter more difficulties in addressing international environmental issues. They may, amongst others, struggle to attract enough participating members and ensure their long-term commitment, to reach consensus and bypass ‘veto players’, to promote compliance, to implement enforcement mechanisms, or to find public support. One of their largest challenges may yet be to promote the necessary behavioural and policy changes to truly address environmental issues. Biodiversity must be recognised as a global public good and radical changes are needed to reform mentalities.

Finally, even if they successfully address a specific environmental issue, international institutions can hardly call it a final success. In our interdependent world, any environmental issue can have much bigger repercussions than previously thought. Even if habitats are preserved from fragmentation and destruction, they may yet be degraded by pollution, invasive species, or climate change, which the Bern Convention does not always address. And further pressures on the environment by a growing population starved to consume more and more goods may add an insurmountable pressure. Therefore, for any environmental institution, there is not a sole challenge to solve.

We need not only resolve the issue of habitat loss. We need to address all unsustainability issues: environmental, demographic, or economic, in a holistic manner. Environmental institutions have learnt the importance of cooperation, but they must go further: all international institutions must work together to address sustainability issues in an integrated way. Biodiversity conservation must be integrated into “policies and decision frameworks for resource production and consumption, and that focus on wider institutional and societal changes to enable more effective implementation of policy“.

Because in the end, environmental problems are not just about the environment: they are ultimately about the survival of the human species.

– Camille François