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opinion

Andrew Gonzalez is the Liber Ero Chair in Biodiversity Conservation at McGill University in Montreal.

Mary O’Connor is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

Sarah Otto is a University Killam Professor at the University of British Columbia.

The science academies of the G7 countries have released a declaration on reversing biodiversity loss. The statement emphasizes opportunities for transformational change, including green investments, essential adaptations of the global food and agricultural systems, and the development of a global network for biodiversity monitoring.

Reversing biodiversity loss requires awareness of the extent of the challenges we face. In the Canadian context, do we have sufficient knowledge to establish a science-based pathway to meeting our conservation goals and reversing biodiversity loss? Sadly, we do not. At least, not yet.

Since the founding of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1842 – the country’s oldest scientific agency – we have repeatedly surveyed our geological and mineral resources, and this knowledge has been the bedrock of large sectors of our economy. Yet, in the same 180 years, we have never conducted a systematic survey of Canada’s biodiversity.

Iconic species, such as the polar bear, beaver, caribou, cod, loon and red cedar, are the tip of our biodiversity iceberg, but just two-thirds of Canada’s visible species have been described. The number and whereabouts of small, hard-to-spot and microscopic organisms is almost entirely unknown. For example, the health of Canada’s soils depends on a host of tiny arthropods, including mites, yet best estimates suggest that at least 70 per cent of Canada’s mite species have not been recorded.

In addition to our limited knowledge, the threats to the biodiversity of Canadian ecosystems continue to increase as a result of an anthropogenic cocktail of climate change, land development, overharvesting, pollution and invasive pests. A vivid illustration of the threat society faces is the rapid and irreversible spread of the invasive emerald ash borer, which will likely cost Canada’s cities more than $1-billion.

There are great economic costs to biodiversity loss. A study led by the World Economic Forum in 2020 estimated that more than half of global GDP (US$44-trillion) depends on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, and is therefore affected by biodiversity loss. Yet a 2021 landmark global assessment authored by Sir Partha Dasgupta stressed that GDP is only part of the picture. GDP is not an inclusive measure of wealth because it ignores depreciation of natural capital associated with the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity.

There are immense benefits to biodiversity conservation. Consider the annual nonmarket ecological value of Canada’s vast boreal ecosystems estimated in 2009 by the Pembina Institute: carbon stored by forests and wetlands ($582-billion), the flood control and water filtered by peatlands ($77-billion), the biodiversity supported by the lakes and rivers ($33.7-billion), the pest control provided by the birds in the forests ($5.4-billion), and the nature-related activities Canadians enjoy every year ($4.5-billion).

How can we rapidly increase our capacity to monitor Canada’s biodiversity in order to address these challenges and seize the opportunities? Harmonizing and co-ordinating scientific initiatives is key.

While there are substantive pockets of biodiversity information, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, we need to fill the gaps in our knowledge by combining traditional ecological knowledge, biodiversity surveys and taxonomy, with modern technologies designed to observe and monitor biodiversity. These include satellite imagery, acoustic recordings of wildlife, camera trapping and telemetry to track animal movements, and cutting-edge DNA-based technologies that can identify species that are difficult to observe.

Through such actions we can rapidly fill the vast gaps in our knowledge of Canada’s biodiversity and how it is changing.

By learning more about what we have to lose, we can protect it before it is too late. A recent poll by the Nature Conservancy of Canada found that 91 per cent of respondents agreed that more than ever we must invest in protecting and restoring Canada’s natural spaces. Rapidly advancing our knowledge of Canada’s biodiversity will respond to this appetite from Canadians and strengthen our ability to fulfil our commitments to multilateral action such as the aspirations of the G7.

This article is part of a collaboration between The Globe and Mail and the Royal Society of Canada mobilizing independent science and expertise on climate and environmental issues.