Nearly one million species risk becoming extinct within decades while current efforts to conserve the earth’s resources will likely fail if radical action is not taken, says a major UN report on the impact of humans on nature.
Speaking in Paris at the launch of the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – the first such report since 2005 – UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said that its findings put the world “on notice”.
“Following the adoption of this historic report, no one will be able to claim that they did not know,” the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said. “We can no longer continue to destroy the diversity of life. This is our responsibility towards future generations.”
Highlighting the universal importance of biodiversity – the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems – Ms. Azoulay said that protecting it “is as vital as fighting climate change”.
Presented to more than 130 government delegations for their approval at UNESCO headquarters, the report features the work of 400 experts from at least 50 countries, coordinated by the Bonn-based Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The Global Assessment made after a three-year review of some 15,000 scientific papers that showed the profound impact of the rise of a globalized industrial society on the planet over the past half-century.
In addition to providing exhaustive insights on the state of nature, ecosystems and how nature underpins all human activity, the study also discusses progress on key international goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The report examines five main drivers of “unprecedented” biodiversity and ecosystem change over the past 50 years, identifying them as (1) Changes in land and sea use; (2) Direct exploitation of organisms; (3) Climate change; (4) Pollution; and (5) Invasion of alien species.
One in four species at risk of extinction
On at-risk fauna and flora, the study asserts that human activities “threaten more species now than ever before” – a finding based on the fact that around 25 per cent of species in plant and animal groups are vulnerable.
This suggests that around one million species “already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss”.
Without such measures there will be a “further acceleration” in the global rate of species extinction, which is already “at least tens to hundreds of times higher, than it has averaged over the past 10 million years”, the report states.
559 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture were extinct
It notes that despite many local efforts, including by indigenous peoples and local communities, by 2016, 559 of the 6,190 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture were extinct – around nine per cent of the total – and at least 1,000 more are threatened.
Crop security threatened
In addition, many crop wild relatives that are needed for long-term food security “lack effective protection”, the report insists while the status of wild relatives of domesticated mammals and birds “is worsening”.
At the same time, reductions in the diversity of cultivated crops, crop wild relatives and domesticated breeds mean that farming will likely be less resilient against future climate change, pests and pathogens.
“While more food, energy and materials than ever before are now being supplied to people in most places, this is increasingly at the expense of nature’s ability to provide such contributions in the future,” the report states, before adding that “the biosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends is declining faster than at any time in human history”.
Marine pollution ‘has increased tenfold since 1980
On the issue of pollution, although global trends are mixed, air, water and soil pollution have continued to increase in some areas, the report insists. “Marine plastic pollution in particular has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 species”, it says, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals.
The Assessment Report is also the first of its kind to examine and include indigenous and local knowledge, issues and priorities, IPBES said in a statement.
The IPBES noted that its mission is to strengthen policy-making for the sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.
“The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being,” insisted Sir Robert Watson, IPBES Chair. “Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge of decades to come. Policies, efforts and actions – at every level – will only succeed, however, when based on the best knowledge and evidence.”
Business as usual has to end
The relentless pursuit of economic growth, twinned with climate crisis has put brought forth this risk.
Only a wide-ranging transformation of the global economic and financial system could pull ecosystems that are vital to the future of human communities worldwide back from the brink of collapse, concluded the report.
The report has been endorsed by 130 countries, including the United States, Russia, and China.
“We have been running from one frontier to another frontier trying to find cheap nature (to exploit) in every corner of the planet,” Eduardo Brondizio, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University in the United States who co-chaired the Global Assessment, told Reuters. The scientists said: “The key message: business, as usual, has to end.”
“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Professor Josef Settele, co-chair of the study.
“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world”, said Professor Josef Settele
The study is a cornerstone of an emerging body of research that suggests the world may need to embrace a new “post-growth” form of economics if it is to avert the existential risks posed by the mutually-reinforcing consequences of pollution, habitat destruction, and carbon emissions.
The report identifies industrial farming and fishing are identified as major drivers of extinction. Climate crisis is aggravating the situation.
Robert Watson, a British environmental scientist said one could go back only if societies were prepared to confront “vested interests” committed to preserving the status quo.
“The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” Watson said in a statement.
“By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”
“We know that the way people eat today is often unhealthy for them and for the planet,” said Dr. Kate Brauman, one of the report’s authors.
“We can become healthier as individuals by eating more diverse diets, with more vegetables, and we can also make the planet healthier by growing that food in more sustainable ways.”
According to the report, the loss of the natural world would also affect human lives. From the disappearance of insects vital for pollinating food crops, to the destruction of coral reefs, which support fish populations that sustain coastal communities, or the loss of medicinal plants, all would inevitably risk human lives.
The threatened list includes more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals. The picture was less clear for insect species, but a tentative estimate suggests 10 percent are at risk of extinction.
Sixth mass extinction already underway
Biodiversity loss and global warming are closely linked, according to the 44-page Summary for Policy Makers, which distills the 1,800-page UN assessment of scientific literature on the state of nature.
The accelerating loss of clean air, drinkable water, CO2-absorbing forests, pollinating insects, protein-rich fish and storm-blocking mangroves – to name but a few of the dwindling services rendered by nature – poses no less of a threat than climate change, says the report.
“We need to recognize that climate change and loss of nature are equally important, not just for the environment, but as development and economic issues as well,” Robert Watson, chair of the UN-mandated body that compiled the report, told AFP in late-April.
“The way we produce our food and energy is undermining the regulating services that we get from Nature,” he said, adding that only “transformative change” can stem the damage.
Deforestation and agriculture, including livestock production, account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and have wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems as well.
The IPBES report warns of “an imminent rapid acceleration in the global rate of species extinction.”
The pace of loss “is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years,” it notes.
Many experts think a “mass extinction event” – only the sixth in the last half-billion years – is already under way.
The most recent is the end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago, when a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid strike wiped out most lifeforms.
Scientists estimate that Earth is today home to some eight million distinct species, a majority of them insects.
A quarter of catalogued animal and plant species are already being crowded, eaten or poisoned out of existence.
The drop in sheer numbers is even more dramatic, with wild mammal biomass – their collective weight – down by 82 percent.
Humans and livestock account for more than 95 percent of mammal biomass.
“If we’re going to have a sustainable planet that provides services to communities around the world, we need to change this trajectory in the next ten years, just as we need to do that with climate,” noted WWF chief scientist Rebecca Shaw, formerly a member of the UN scientific bodies for both climate and biodiversity.
The direct causes of species loss, in order of importance, are shrinking habitat and land-use change, hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts, climate change, pollution, and alien species such as rats, mosquitoes and snakes that hitch rides on ships or planes, the report finds.
“There are also two big indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change – the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume,” said Watson.
Once seen as primarily a future threat to animal and plant life, the disruptive impact of global warming has accelerated.
Shifts in the distribution of species, for example, will likely double if average temperature goes up a notch from 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2C.
So far, the global thermometer has risen 1C compared with mid-19th century levels.
The 2015 Paris Agreement enjoins nations to cap the rise to “well below” 2C. But a landmark UN climate report in October said that would still be enough to boost the intensity and frequency of deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms.
Other findings in the report include:
- Three-quarters of land surfaces, 40 percent of the marine environment, and 50 percent of inland waterways across the globe have been “severely altered.”
- Many of the areas where Nature’s contribution to human wellbeing will be most severely compromised are home to indigenous peoples and the world’s poorest communities that are also vulnerable to climate change.
- More than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy, four billion rely on natural medicines, and more than 75 percent of global food crops require animal pollination.
- Nearly half of land and marine ecosystems have been profoundly compromised by human interference in the last 50 years.
- Subsidies to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining and the production of biofuel or fossil fuel energy encourage waste, inefficiency and over-consumption.
The report cautioned against climate change solutions that may inadvertently harm Nature.
The use, for example, of biofuels combined with “carbon capture and storage” – the sequestration of CO2 released when biofuels are burned – is widely seen as key in the transition to green energy on a global scale.
But the land needed to grow all those biofuel crops may wind up cutting into food production, the expansion of protected areas or reforestation efforts.
The world is losing the biodiversity that secures food production
Bees, soil, trees – even tiny organisms we can’t even see – all play a vital role in producing the world’s food. Yet, this biodiversity, which supports our food and agriculture systems, is under stress. A new report by the United Nations Food Organization (FAO) issued this warning in February 2019.
The report found 33 per cent of fish stocks is estimated to be overfished and bee colony losses are on the rise – all factors that endanger the world’s future security.