The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.

Image: Shutterstock.com.

The world is in trouble: one million animals and plants face extinction

A landmark report has confirmed that humanity is destroying its own life support system as the natural world faces unprecedented declines.

An international team of scientists, backed by the UN, has reported that communities around the world are likely to face dire consequences as ecosystems decline faster and faster.

Human impacts on the natural environment are now so great that we are eroding our own economies and food security, according to the world's leading climate scientists.

Every ecosystem around the world is affected by extinction, from coral reefs to tropical jungles, and the problem is accelerating with each passing day.

It is estimated that around one million animals and plants are threatened with extinction - more than ever before in human history. More than 40% of amphibian species, about 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

And it is humanity that is to blame, as about 75% of environments on land have been significantly altered by human actions, plus roughly 66% of the marine environment.

Coral reefs are home to almost a quarter of all marine species. Roughly 33% of reef-forming corals are now threatened with extinction.

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report was released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

It is the most comprehensive planetary health-check of its kind, having examined changes to the natural world over the past five decades.

Experts studied the relationship between economic development and human impact on nature. They also offered a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades and found that action is needed urgently if we are to protect both people and the planet from catastrophic damage.

Sir Robert Watson is one of the most influential environmental scientists in the world and chairs the IPBES, an independent intergovernmental body formed of more than 130 member governments.

He says, 'The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture.

'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 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. 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.'

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.

© Ihsan Saladin/Shutterstock

A human problem

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental report of its kind and builds on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005.

Scientists drew together and reviewed 15,000 scientific and government sources, as well as studying issues that are directly affecting indigenous peoples and local communities.

Based on the evidence available, the authors ranked the five biggest culprits to blame for declining ecosystems.

The worst driver of change is changes in land and sea use, followed by the direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive species.

More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production, which reduces the Earth's wild places and squeezes out native species.

The value of agricultural crop production has also increased by about 300% since 1970. Raw timber harvest has risen by 45%. Approximately 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted from the Earth every year - having nearly doubled since 1980.

The ocean has fared no better. In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean 'dead zones'.

The numbers can feel overwhelming to read – but they add up to a bleak picture.

Prof Andy Purvis, a biodiversity researcher at the Museum, was one of the scientists involved in the study.

He says, 'We should have gone to the doctor sooner. We're in a bad way. The society we'd like our children and grandchildren to live in is in real jeopardy.

'I cannot overstate it. If we leave it to later generations to clear up the mess, I don't think they will forgive us.

'One million animal and plant species threatened with extinction already - how much worse are we going to let it get?'

Between 300 and 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.

Why we should care

All this loss in nature is now likely to translate into loss of human homes, economies and lives. As the natural environment is squeezed, over time it has less to offer Earth's human population, and without action, this problem will worsen.

The report found that up to 300 million people are already at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.

More than 800 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa, and about 40%: of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.

There are currently more than 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food and land occurring worldwide.

Loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue as well.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, says, 'This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity.

'Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently. UNESCO is committed to promoting respect of the living and of its diversity, ecological solidarity with other living species, and to establish new, equitable and global links of partnership and intragenerational solidarity, for the perpetuation of humankind.'

Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.

Grangemouth refinery, Scotland at dusk © orxy/Shutterstock

What needs to be done?

The short answer is: a lot more than we are currently doing.

The report found that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature cannot be met by current trajectories. Goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economics, politics and technology.

One of the most important ways we can create a sustainable future is by changing global financial and economic systems. According to the report, world leaders need to find a new way build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

The researchers are calling for governments to include different value systems and diverse interests and worldviews when formulating policies and actions.

This includes listening to indigenous people and making biodiversity a priority.  

Sir Robert Watson adds, 'We have already seen the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change, such as innovative policies by many countries, local authorities and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide.

'From the young global shapers behind the #VoiceforthePlanet movement, to school strikes for climate, there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future.

'The IPBES Global Assessment Report offers the best available expert evidence to help inform these decisions, policies and actions - and provides the scientific basis for the biodiversity framework and new decadal targets for biodiversity, to be decided in late 2020 in China, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.'

The full six-chapter report is expected exceed 1,500 pages and will be published later this year.

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