A new report from the United nations is warning that the world’s biodiversity is in serious jeopardy, with roughly 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction, a die-off rate never before seen in human history. Although the report says that it is not too late to address the problem—due primarily to habitat loss caused by human activity—’transformative change’ will be required to save the natural world as we know it.
Published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the 39-page report, titled “IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, is the most comprehensive report of its kind, and details the main problems that are currently threatening the world’s biodiversity, and in turn the well-being of the human race.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” explains IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The report lists five main factors as the driving forces behind the threatened decline in biodiversity, a decline that may affect roughly one-quarter of the planet’s known species. These factors include:
• The conversion of forests and other natural areas into agricultural land, cities, and other human-use developments, displacing plants and animals that previously inhabited these areas. To date, roughly three-quarters of Earth’s land area, two-thirds of our oceans and 85 percent of wetlands have been severely altered or destroyed, making it harder for species living there to survive.
• Overfishing of the world’s oceans, resulting in the overfishing of roughly one-third of the planet’s fish stocks.
• Anthropogenic climate change is altering regional climates, altering conditions so that they become alternatively too hot, wet or dry for the species living there to survive. Almost half of the planet’s land mammals and a quarter of bird species have already been impacted in some way by global warming.
• The pollution of natural habitats via the dumping of toxic waste. 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s oceans annually.
• The progression of invasive species—a phenomenon primarily driven by human interference and climate change—that out-compete or displace native species has risen 70 percent since 1970. Two species of chytrid fungi, unwittingly spread around the world by humans, are responsible for the decline of at least 501 amphibian species, or one in every sixteen known species.
“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future,” explains biologist Thomas Lovejoy, of George Mason University, in regards to the IPBES report. “The biological diversity of this planet has been really hammered, and this is really our last chance to address all of that.”
The report states that this current rate of extinction is tens to hundreds of times faster than anything seen in human history, and that the fate of humanity is entwined with the natural world. The report also illustrates that many of the drivers behind the declines in biodiversity are also interconnected, meaning that addressing one issue, such as global warming, will help alleviate other issues that are affected, such as regional climate shifts and the spread of invasive species.
But despite this dire warning, the report says that the natural world doesn’t need to end in such a tragic manner. “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,” according to Watson. “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.”
Toward that end, the report makes a number of recommendations that could be part of this transformative change, including actions that would enable sustainability and pathways for achieving them across sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance, amongst others.
In addition to actions that will need to be taken at the governmental and industrial levels, individuals can also make a big difference in how they impact the planet, primarily by addressing diet and energy use concerns. “That doesn’t mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan, but balancing meat, vegetables and fruit, and walking and biking more,” according to Watson.
“We can actually feed all the coming billions of people without destroying another inch of nature,” Lovejoy said, primarily through the elimination of food waste and becoming more efficient.