A recent United Nations scientific report documents the “unprecedented” decline in global biodiversity that has alarming implications for human health, prosperity and long-term survival.
It’s long been no secret that people are destroying the natural world all around the planet at a rapidly accelerating pace, but a landmark UN intergovernmental analysis released on Monday assessed the state of global biodiversity and finds that the devastation is proceeding at a rate that is tens to hundreds of times faster than during the past ten million years (Figure 3B and C) — a rate never seen before in history — and could plunge the planet into a sixth mass extinction event.
“Nature and its vital contributions to people, which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide,” warn the authors in their IPBES Summary For Policymakers (PDF).
According to the new Report, entitled Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), more than one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction (Figure 3A) — many of which are predicted to be pushed into extinction within just a few decades — thanks to decades of rampant poisoning, looting, vandalism and wholesale destruction of the planet’s forests, oceans, soils, watersheds, and air.
The Report finds that more than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened, and at least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened.
In the United States, nothing escapes our covetous gaze. We have a long and sordid history of driving species extinct, from the passenger pigeon, which was probably the most populous bird species on the planet (more here); and the iconic Carolina parakeet (more here); to the mountain caribou of the South Selkirk Mountains, which were recently declared extinct (link); and we’re even madly working on pushing endangered prairie chickens into oblivion (more here); as well as the monarch butterfly (link) and even the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (more here) — just to name a few of our more odious accomplishments.
The IPBES executive summary and its underlying Report also noted that even seemingly common species not yet threatened with extinction are experiencing steep declines in abundances — one indicator reports a 60% decline for vertebrate species since 1970 (excluding humans, of course, whose exploding population currently numbers 7.7 billion). Furthermore, direct and indirect human impacts have severely damaged 75% of the terrestrial environment and 40% of the marine environment upon which these animals depend.
The IPBES Report is based on a detailed and systematic review of about 15,000 scientific papers and government reports that assess changes over the past five decades. These documents were complied and analyzed by 145 experts, with additional input from another 310 contributing authors, from 50 countries over three years. The Report, which is 1,500 pages long, provides an exhaustive expert analysis of what is known about the relationships between economic development and the loss of species (Figure 5).
To ensure that its findings are plain for all to see and understand, and can be used to support policy-level decision-making to remedy this desperate situation, the Report’s authors ranked the top five drivers for biodiversity extinctions (Figure 2). By a wide margin, the top two are (1) land and sea use, including development, logging, mining and harvesting, and (2) hunting and fishing for food or for trade in body parts.
Perhaps surprisingly, global climate change is third on this list, but considering that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, and thereby raised average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit), its damaging impacts are expected to move up the list in importance — and very quickly. Already we know that climate change is aggravating the damaging effects of overfishing, pesticide use, pollution, and urban expansion into natural spaces. The Report documented that warming climate is impacting nature at all levels, from ecosystems to genetics — and those impacts are expected to increase dramatically over the coming decades.
Fourth and fifth on this list are pollution and invasive alien species. The report notes that 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge and other wastes are dumped into oceans and rivers every year, and invasive alien species, such as rats, mosquitoes, snakes and plants that hitchhike on ships or airplanes are becoming more widespread.
This advancing global biodiversity crisis poses serious threats to human health, prosperity, security and even to the future of modern society; indeed, these threats are at least perilous as climate change, according to Robert Watson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of East Anglia who chaired the 132-nation meeting (which included the United States) that signed off on the Summary for Policymakers (here) at the seventh session of the IPBES meeting last week in Paris.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality-of-life worldwide,” Professor Watson warned.
This global assessment serves as an urgent clarion call to politicians, corporate leaders and other decision-makers: we have not met our goals for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, and as a result, we are courting disaster. Will they hear this alarm and respond?
Despite this dire global report card, the Report did provide some encouraging news.
“It is not too late to make a difference,” Professor Watson said, “but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
The Report included individual success stories that demonstrate that we do possess the knowledge and tools to improve this situation — provided that we have the political will to enact system-wide changes to how we live and organize human societies, and that we radically rethink our underlying values and ethics, so we conserve and restore the natural environment upon which we depend.
“The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” Professor Watson said.
But this won’t be easy: such transformative changes will require more than 100 developing and nondeveloped nations — each with its own priorities and objectives — to put aside their differences and work together to overhaul established practices in agriculture, forestry and fishery and reject those that are environmentally and economically destructive.
The Report also admonishes each of us, as individuals, to make specific changes in our personal lives. Topping this list: reduce meat consumption, reduce luxury consumption, end environmentally damaging subsidies, stop cutting down trees in tropical countries, and get used to living in a limited-growth economy. The Report also emphasizes the need to develop integrated management of landscapes so trade-offs are balanced between food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and nature conservation.
“We must radically change the way we live, including how we use energy to power our societies, grow our food, and manage our waste,” the authors write in the Report.
In short, the current biodiversity and climate change crises are catastrophes of our own making. It is our moral and ethical responsibility to fix this mess, and to do so now. The Report has provided overwhelming evidence attesting to our precarious situation, as well as clear and unambiguous suggestions for what we can do at individual, local, national and global levels to remedy it. Procrastinating in the face of this impending disaster will certainly seal the grim fate of our species and that of the planet.
Other important IPBES findings include:
- Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities
- More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production
- The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year — having nearly doubled since 1980
- Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection
- In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished
- Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992
- Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 — a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom
- Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the Report, except those that include transformative change — due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change, although with significant differences between regions