I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak its members about biodiversity. Biodiversity, which is the variety of life, is fundamental to humanity. Without a variety of different creatures in soils, hedgerows, woodlands, bogs and heaths, we would not be able to produce the food, timber and other raw materials that we produce. Without a variety of different creatures and habitats in the landscape, we would not have protection against natural hazards, such as sea-surges, floods and droughts. Without a rich and diverse landscape, our culture and recreational opportunities would be diminished. With the loss of that biodiversity, I cannot over-state the problems that will face human societies.
Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic has been caused by a disease that spread from other animals to humans. Our destruction of biodiversity, deforestation and simplification of habitat, as well as the trade and handling of animals by people, has brought humans and wild animals into closer contact, facilitating this disease transfer. In fact, 75% of all new diseases in humans in the past ten years have come from animals, and more will come in the future.
However, with restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems, solutions to global challenges are all around us. In terms of climate change, biodiversity is key to both mitigation and adaptation strategies. First, in respect of climate change mitigation, slowing climate change, biodiversity can help slow carbon release. In Ireland, we hold a trump card - healthy peatlands are fantastic carbon sinks. Peatlands cover only around 3% of the earth's land surface, but store about double the amount of carbon in all forests which cover ten times that area. Peatlands retain carbon and prevent it from being lost to the atmosphere, as well as acting like giant sponges, holding rainwater and releasing it slowly, preventing flooding. They also provide habitats for plants and animals, like birds, that need these wild open spaces. In respect of climate change adaptation, urban trees and other green spaces can help towns and cities cope with higher summer temperatures, cooling them down; coastal wetlands can protect against storm surges; wooded floodlands and peatlands attenuate flood water; and patches of scrub hold soil together and prevent erosion and soil loss.
By restoring biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, nature can provide solutions to the climate crisis. We need diversity. Diversity in ecosystems gives them resilience. If there are more species, then an ecosystem is more adaptable in the face of change and can bounce back from severe events more effectively. Studies have shown that with more species in grasslands, they are more resistant to a broad range of climate events, including wet or dry, moderate or extreme and brief or prolonged events. Diversity is going to be very important in adapting to a climate-changed future, for example, in our agricultural systems.
However, we do need to restore ecosystems back to health and ensure that biodiversity is there. Most of our ecosystems are not in good health. Peatlands have been converted to grassland, planted with forestry and harvested for fuel, and most of them are emitting carbon rather than storing it. Intensive agriculture and chemical inputs from farmland are polluting soils and waterways. Well-intentioned, but wrongly sited, installations to address greenhouse gas emissions can cause instability to entire habitats.
Restoration of biodiversity is urgent, but there has never been a better time. It is the UN decade on ecosystem restoration, we will have legally binding targets as part of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2030 and the public has got back in touch with nature during lockdown. This is good, because to restore ecosystems back to health, we need action. We actively have to work with nature to restore biodiversity and create these nature-based solutions. We have to work with local communities and empower them to restore their own patches. We need to ditch the perverse policies and make people proud of being stewards of nature. Let us not penalise farmers for having uncultivatable land and pay them for actions that have no positive effect. We must work with them and pay them to restore biodiversity on all parts of their farms. We must look to the success of initiatives like the all-Ireland pollinator plan, which has brought together local communities, local authorities, schools and businesses. Working together for pollinators has brought additional benefits for other wildlife. It has got commercial companies investing in nature and has brought people together with a common purpose.
We have immediate access to nature-based solutions. The restoration of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is a solution to the climate crisis, and fundamental to all of our well-being. Nature is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Investing in nature now will not just affect the next five to ten years, but the next 100 to 200 years. It does not cost the earth, but it gives us and the earth a chance.