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We're conservation scientists – here's why we haven't lost hope for the future

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It can be easy to lose hope in the age of what some call the planet’s sixth mass extinction. It is clear that there are no easy solutions to ongoing biodiversity loss, and while there are some inspiring local successes, we have so far failed to change the trajectory of environmental destruction that has historically accompanied economic expansion. Meanwhile, the main underlying driver of biodiversity loss, our consumption of natural resources, is only projected to increase.

But we are optimistic that things can improve. Though biodiversity in Europe is still declining, three major trends give us hope for our home continent.

Culture is changing

People are increasingly recognising how their lifestyle choices impact the environment, and this is slowly driving a cultural shift towards sustainability. Among those aged 18-35 across the world, climate change and the destruction of nature is already considered the most serious global issue and, as this generation becomes increasingly influential, that mindset might cascade into multiple biodiversity successes. It is already affecting consumption choices, with “green” products and lower-impact diets on the rise to the benefit of both biodiversity and human health.

This rising focus on sustainability is also delivering notable policy successes. One example is last year’s European parliament vote to ban many single-use plastics, following widespread concern about their impacts on wildlife.

Perhaps most importantly, questions are increasingly being asked about how we can deliver societal prosperity on a finite planet, hence the widespread acclaim of alternative narratives that aren’t based on growth, such as Doughnut Economics. There are even small signs that these alternatives might be growing in policy influence, such as members of the European parliament organising last year’s Postgrowth Conference in Brussels.

Meat substitutes are on the rise

Meat consumption is a major threat to biodiversity globally, and in Europe a sixth of all land is devoted to pasture. One exciting driver of the reduced meat consumption outlined above is the emergence of ambitious meat substitutes which could both significantly reduce the amount of land needed for farming, and reduce other pressures on biodiversity such as pollution.

A key strength of meat substitutes is that they don’t rely on people sacrificing the “experience” of meat. This means they can work alongside demand reduction efforts to limit agricultural consumption.

A study by Impossible Foods in the US found that someone replacing half of their beef consumption with one of the company’s plant-based alternatives could lead to a 12% reduction in their total agricultural footprint. On top of that, the company claims its meatless burger scored as highly as actual beef in its own blind taste tests.

Europe can be rewilded

As culture changes, and as tasty meat substitutes becomes more popular, demand for land-intensive red meat might start to dwindle. This in turn could free up areas of land for nature restoration and rewilding.

Around 50m hectares of land has has been abandoned across Europe in the past 40 years. That’s an area the size of Spain. Alongside improved wildlife legislation, this has stimulated the extraordinary comeback of bears, wolves and lynx across the continent.

But abandoning farms and leaving them to nature does have its downsides. Abandonment is a leading driver of the loss of certain components of biodiversity (such as some open-habitat-loving farmland birds) as well as cultures associated with extensive agriculture and traditional farming practices, and so these will of course have to continue to be managed into the future.

There is also a worry that using agricultural land more efficiently could simply cause people to consume more, and thus use more farmland anyway – a so-called rebound effect.

Nevertheless, the benefits of restoring nature to lands freed from farming are potentially vast – it’s also one of the most important pathways through which Europe can meet its international climate change and biodiversity commitments. And then there are enterprises such as the “rewilded” Knepp Estate in West Sussex, England, which are showing how landscape-scale restoration can potentially create economic opportunities through tourism and low impact harvesting. At a time when agricultural subsidies are increasingly uncertain, they offer a compelling alternative to conventional farming.

All-in-all, there is little doubt that biodiversity is still under extreme threat in Europe and globally. However, we remain optimistic that emerging cultural changes, sustainable technological innovations, and an increasing recognition of the benefits of a wilder countryside might leave European biodiversity better off in future.

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