UN says the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. Photo credit: IPBES.
By Anders Lorenzen
A report by the UN body, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), has declared that globally nature is declining at unprecedented rates, not seen before in human history. The consequences are that rates of species extinctions are also accelerating.
Chair of the IPBES, Sir Robert Watson, explained that this report provides overwhelming evidence from a wide range of different fields of knowledge and that it presents a scary 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”, Watson said. However, Watson explained that the report also states that it is not too late to make a difference if we act now, but emphasizes that we need action at every level from local to global. He said that through ‘transformative change’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably. He explained that by transformative change he referred to a fundamental system-wide reorganisation across technologies, economies and societies.
The natural world at a crossroads
The report makes sombre reading as it states that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. This is more than ever before in human history. According to the authors, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. A less clear image could be determined for insect species.
However, the available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century. And, by 2016, more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
Professor Josef Settele, one of the Co-Chairs of the study, said: “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
The role of climate change
The report details that climate change has played a huge role. It states that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius. With climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics and expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.
Humans impact on nature
It also notes further the severity of humanity’s footprint on nature, that three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions. 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 non-renewable 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, and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of the 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 can be sustainably fished. Since 1992, urban areas have more than doubled. 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. Agricultural fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
The report finds that these 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. Increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change will continue the negative process, although with significant differences between regions.
Not enough progress
The UN Report acknowledges that there has been progress to conserve nature and implement policies. Though it also finds that the global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories. The goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through the transformative changes. It highlights that good progress has been met on only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets (this relates to the Convention on Biological Diversity signed in Rio in 1992), and it is becoming more likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline.
When it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards meeting 80% of them, which translates to 35 out of 44. Based on that, the authors determine that the loss of biodiversity becomes not only an environmental issue but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue.
The authors put forward a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability, and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others.
It highlights the importance of, among others, adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.