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Museum scientist contributes to new global report revealing human-driven decline of life on Earth

A new paper published in the journal Science has produced the most comprehensive assessment to date of the worldwide state of nature.

The first global-scale assessment of the links between people and nature provides the most comprehensive review to date of the worldwide state of nature.

The first paper to be published from the new IPBES Global Assessment Report reveals that ecosystems, the fabric of life on which we all depend, are declining rapidly because of human action.

The paper was written by a global team of experts, including Professor Andy Purvis, Research Leader at London’s Natural History Museum.  

The paper reveals that ecosystems, the fabric of life on which we all depend, are declining rapidly because of human activity. The paper’s authors state that a reversal of recent declines - and a sustainable global future - are only possible with urgent transformative change tackling the interconnected root causes of nature’s deterioration.

The paper has come from the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and highlights how, despite humanity’s profound dependence on nature, human actions are altering it on a global scale - with impacts that are distributed unequally around the world and among sectors of society. It identifies the key interventions needed to bring about urgent change - tackling both the direct and indirect drivers of nature loss.

The human impact on life on Earth has increased sharply since the 1970s, driven by the demands of a growing population and economy. Nature is supplying us with more materials than ever before, but experts found that this is at the cost of unprecedented global declines in ecosystems, ecological communities and the number of wild and domesticated species. In addition, both the benefits of an expanding economy and the costs of reducing nature’s benefits are unequally distributed.

Among the key findings of the paper is that a million species of plants and animals risk extinction, many within a matter of decades; that almost three quarters of land and 66% of marine environments have been significantly altered by humanity and that more than 85% of wetland areas have been lost.

Professor Andy Purvis, a Research Leader at the Natural History Museum, was among the team of interdisciplinary experts from more than 50 countries that worked on the IPBES Global Assessment - spending three years studying human interactions with nature - and is an author on the paper.

He says: “It was terrifying to find out how close we are to playing Russian roulette with the only world we have. But it has also been inspiring, because there is a way out of this. What has given hope to the many scientists who worked on this paper has been that the public are fully aware that this is not a drill - they can see this is a real emergency that has to be tackled; and they are willing - along with governments and businesses - to tackle it.”

Since the 1970s, Earth's population has doubled, and consumption has increased by 45% per capita. The world is increasingly managed in a way that maximises the flow of material from nature, to meet rising human demands for resources such as food, energy and timber.

The report highlights that this unparalleled appropriation of nature is having unprecedented impacts on the fabric of life on which humanity depends. This includes the number and population size of wild species, the number of local varieties of domesticated species, the distinctness of ecological communities, and the extent and integrity of many terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

The report states that these trends in nature are projected to worsen in the coming decades unless rapid action is taken to reduce the direct drivers responsible for the greatest change over the past 50 years. These include changes in land and sea use, direct harvesting of many plants and animals, climate change, pollution and the introduction of invasive species.

Professor Andy Purvis says: “Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to look after the environment around them because that's where they got their products from. If they didn't look after it, they would face the consequences. Now with globalisation, we have massive environmental impacts a long way from where we live. But we are insulated from these impacts, so they are abstract to us.

“With the massive increase in trade, there is no longer that imperative to make sustainable choices. We can overexploit natural resources somewhere else in the world and the magnitudes of our choices are invisible to us.”

A world that achieves many of the global biodiversity targets and sustainability goals related to food, energy, climate and water is not yet beyond reach, but no single action can help combat the loss of ecosystems - it will require a multi-faceted approach.

The paper’s authors have identified key areas for intervention which could have the greatest positive impact - tackling the interconnected economic, sociocultural, demographic, political, institutional and technological indirect drivers behind the direct drivers of nature loss. These include reducing total consumption and waste, ensuring environmentally friendly technology, innovation and investment and promoting education and knowledge sharing.

Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for profound change will be published Friday 13 December 2019 in Science.


Notes to editors:

To access the Summary for Policymakers of the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, go to http://bit.ly/GlobalAssessmentReport


Natural History Museum Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799 690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

About the Natural History Museum:

The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome around five million visitors each year and our website receives over 850,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.