Spotlight on sustainability


learn more about BirdLife’s asks for Rio+20

All living organisms—humankind included—depend on external elements for their survival. These fundamental requirements of life such as sunlight, water, air and nutrients are called natural resources. A few, like solar radiation or geothermal energy, are, for all intents and purposes, inexhaustible; most, however, are finite. Humanity has now reached a point where its collective size and individual expectations have grown to a point where we have started to deplete the Earth’s resources faster than they can be renewed. Human overconsumption is precipitating a global extinction crisis that threatens to undermine the natural processes on which all life depends. The race is now on to develop sustainable methods of living before these vital ecological systems and cycles are irreversibly compromised.




"Sustainable development is based on three interdependent pillars—economic development, social development and environmental protection and focuses on the management of three types of capital—social, economic and environmental—the wealth of goods and services provided by nature."

Nature underpins ecosystem services, livelihoods and human wellbeing

Birds alone bring us material benefits by the millions (Nearly half of all bird species are used directly by people, Birds control insect pests in farmlands and forests) whilst the ecological systems of which they are a critical component underpin every aspect of human existence. Our lives depend on a vast range of biodiversity-driven ‘ecosystem services’—without a myriad of organisms working in concert, we would have no oxygen to breathe, no clean water to drink, no fertile soil to grow our crops and no food to eat. The recent population crash in honeybees demonstrates how indebted we are to other forms of life and how fragile the crucial services they provide can be. In the UK alone, it is estimated that £1.8 billion would be required each year to replicate by hand the pollination services naturally performed by these unobtrusive insects. Ecosystems, and the functions and services they provide, are particularly critical for many of the world’s 2.7 billion poor people. Consequently, conserving biodiversity and eliminating poverty are closely linked. Indeed, maintaining a healthy biosphere is central to meeting many of the most urgent global challenges, including water and food security, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation and adaptation (Understanding local needs: the role of Important Bird Areas in peoples livelihoods , Healthy forests are benefiting local livelihoods in Pakistan, Developing sustainable livelihood options will help communities adapt to climate change , Mangrove ecosystems provide numerous benefits including protection against sea level rise).


Unsustainable practices are degrading the natural capital on which we all depend

Humanity has reached a point where it is living beyond the biological capacity of the planet. The Earth’s natural capital must now sustain 7 billion people, including a rapidly-expanding global middle class who enjoy an unprecedented level of individual material consumption. The natural systems that underpin all life and every aspect of human existence are beginning to buckle (Human impacts on the planet are growing—to the extent that we are compromising our own future).


The Global Ecological Footprint tracks the area of biologically productive land and water required to provide the renewable resources people use, and includes the space needed for infrastructure and vegetation to absorb waste carbon dioxide (CO2). It shows an alarming and consistent trend: one of continuous growth. Overall, human demand on the biosphere more than doubled between 1961 and 2007 (Global Footprint Network 2010). Graphic courtesy of WWF Living Planet Report 2010.


For much of the great span of human history, people have regarded the Earth’s natural bounty as unending and its ecological processes and cycles as unshakable. Our economic systems and institutions reflect this misguided belief. Prevailing economic orthodoxies treat natural resources as if they were limitless and fail to adequately value the enormous services delivered by wild nature. These conventional models prioritise economic growth, irrespective of whether it is derived through sustainable practices. However, growth that is achieved by degrading natural resources and disrupting natural systems is, in the long-term, economically counterproductive.

Examples of ‘uneconomic’ growth abound. For example, the conversion of bio-diverse rainforests into biofuel monocultures makes neither economic nor environmental sense in the long-term. Not only does the production of biofuels on formerly forested lands result in significant CO2 emissions, but also the financial gains accrued by a small number of current developers pale in comparison to the economic cost inflicted on society through lost ecological services (Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate). Yet around the world biofuel crops, such as oil palm, are being advocated as both an environmentally- and economically-sound alternative to fossil fuels (In current global markets, oil palm plantations are valued more highly than ancient forest). Similarly, the economic incentives driving the overharvesting of the world’s fish will ultimately cost humanity far more when stocks eventually collapse and future generations are robbed of a livelihood option, an important source of food and the vast range of goods and services afforded by healthy and intact marine ecosystems.

The unsustainable exploitation of natural capital rewards a small, present-day elite at the economic, ecological and spiritual expense of future generations whilst at the same time providing little material gain for the vast majority in contemporary society. Few, if any, financial benefits trickle down to the poorest communities, exacerbating poverty and inequality (The perverse economics of habitat conversion).


We must invest more in nature

Despite the economic importance of biodiversity, investment in conservation still falls far short of what is needed (More needs to be invested in biodiversity conservation, especially in developing countries). Conservation financing is rarely sustained and often not directed to where it can do most good. One difficulty is that many of the benefits accrued through conservation—such as carbon storage or climate regulation—are enjoyed at distances remote from the conserved area, whilst the costs are borne by marginalised and disadvantaged communities who often have their access to much-needed resources and livelihood options curtailed. Mechanisms are needed that compensate local communities for lost access to resources whilst ensuring that the national and global beneficiaries of conservation pay their fair share (Those who benefit from biodiversity conservation should pay the costs, A strategy to finance conservation of protected areas: an example from Madagascar). Effective biodiversity conservation is, in fact, easily affordable, requiring relatively trivial sums at the scale of the global economy (An effective African Protected Areas network needs more resources but represents excellent value).


Mainstreaming sustainable practice amongst grassroots groups, governments and the private sector

To avert the current biodiversity crisis and safeguard the essential services provided by nature, changes in attitudes and approaches are needed at all scales, from the local to the global and the individual to the institutional.

Society must establish new socio-economic structures and institutions based on sustainable resource use rather than relentless material consumption. A genuinely ‘green economy’ must be centred on the principles of sustainable development. It must be in harmony with nature, respect environmental limits, and recognise the crucial underpinning provided by biodiversity and ecosystem services, and thus the fundamental importance of nature conservation to economic prosperity and poverty eradication. It is imperative that the true value of the goods and services derived from natural ecosystems are properly recognised in decision-making (How much do we value wild nature?). To this end, BirdLife works with the multilateral environmental agreements and on their national implementation to improve this recognition (Most countries have ratified key international treaties although significant gaps remain, Partner inputs to environmental conventions help to secure the future for birds and their habitats). Furthermore, BirdLife is working with a network of experts to develop an easy-to-use ‘toolkit’ for measuring ecosystem services (Ecosystem services demonstrate the socio-economic value of Important Bird Areas). Many forms of natural capital can be exploited at a level that does not permanently diminish the capital itself. However, a good empirical understanding of population dynamics is required to establish sustainable yields for resources such as timber, water and fish stocks. Without scientifically robust, precautionary limits, it is impossible to distinguish between financially-beneficial ecosystem services and uneconomic environmental exploitation. The sustainable use of natural resources is often undermined by poverty and inequality. It is therefore essential that the world’s political and economic institutions strive to remedy global imbalances in power and wealth.

Around the world the BirdLife Partnership is working with grassroots organisations to drive the transition to sustainability. For instance, in the Middle East it is helping to revive the hima, a traditional system under which communities manage natural areas such as woodlands, grasslands and wetlands, and protect them from over-exploitation (The traditional approach of Hima: conserving Important Bird Areas and empowering local people). In Asia, Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal) is collaborating with Community Forest Users Groups to develop sustainable livelihood options (Working with Community Forest Users Groups in Nepal), while Burung Indonesia (BirdLife in Indonesia) is working alongside the country’s bird-keeping fraternity to establish sustainable captive-bred alternatives to wild-caught birds (Developing a market-based solution to the bird trade in Indonesia). In the state of Chiapas, Mexico, the regional branch of BirdLife Partner Pronatura has backed local communities in their opposition to a state-wide logging ban after working with them to ensure that their forestry practices were sustainable and well-managed (Sustainable, locally-driven forestry can be more desirable than an outright logging ban). At Lake Chilwa Important Bird Area (IBA) in Malawi, the BirdLife partner (WESM) has helped the local community establish hunting clubs to regulate wildfowl hunting and establish sustainable quotas (Local self-regulation can be more effective at ensuring sustainable resource use than outright ban).

Businesses that deal directly with natural resources, whether through agriculture, forestry, mining or energy production, must recognise their enormous social and environmental responsibilities. BirdLife is increasingly entering into strategic partnerships with the corporate sector in order to ensure that their negative impacts on biodiversity are acknowledged and ameliorated (Business needs to take biodiversity on board, Strategic partnership: CEMEX, the global cement and aggregates company, and BirdLife International, Finding ways to offset private sector impacts on biodiversity). To this end, BirdLife, in collaboration with others from the conservation community, has developed a suite of web-based tools that provide decision-makers from the private and public sectors with the detailed biodiversity information needed to make sustainable choices (A decision support tool for business, government and conservation).

Individually, we must all recognise our moral obligation to bequeath a healthy, functioning biosphere to future generations. In particular, those fortunate enough to enjoy comparative affluence and political freedom must shoulder the greatest responsibility. Many in the developed world are still unaware that the sum of their actions as individual consumers is causing ecosystem degradation worldwide, driving processes such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Greater awareness-raising is needed to ensure that the importance of sustainability is ingrained in society’s collective consciousness and thus at the forefront of the global political agenda. Sustainability must become the guiding ethos at the heart of all political institutions, economic systems and individual actions.  

RIO+20: Find out more


Rio+20—BirdLife urges governments to ensure that biodiversity and nature are central to decisions taken on sustainable development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), better known as Rio+20, took place in Brazil on 20-22 June 2012 after a week of preparatory meetings that began on 13 June. Find out more about what happened here.




BirdLife International (2010) Partners for sustainability: What BirdLife is doing for people and the planet. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International.

This report includes many examples of the BirdLife Partnership’s work with communities, businesses and governments around the world. It illustrates how we are helping to create the civil society networks, the inter-sectoral partnerships, and the social and economic models that are needed to enable humankind to make the transition to a sustainable future.





Banking on biodiversity: a natural way out of poverty

This booklet, produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development in association with BirdLife, explores how biodiversity supports local livelihoods, contributes to economies of poor countries and helps combat climate change.




To access more case studies on sustainability, please click on the following links.

Nature underpins ecosystem services, livelihoods and human wellbeing

Unsustainable practices are degrading the natural capital on which we all depend

We must invest more in nature

Mainstreaming sustainable practice amongst grassroots groups, governments and the private sector

Compiled 2012

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2012) Spotlight on sustainability. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: