Species loss: major report rings alarm on deteriorating environment

By David Donaldson

May 7, 2019

Green sprouts growing out from soil in the morning light

Around one million animal and plant species across the world are now threatened with extinction, many within the next few decades, according to a major international report.

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, warns the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

The report — the most comprehensive global assessment ever completed — “presents an ominous picture”, said 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 situation is not hopeless, but fixing it will require urgent action.

“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,” Watson said.

“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 reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Changes in land and water use are the biggest contributor to this dire situation. Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have 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 assessment’s authors have ranked the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. These are, in descending order:

  1. Changes in land and sea use;
  2. Direct exploitation of organisms;
  3. Climate change;
  4. Pollution and
  5. Invasive non-native species.

While climate change does not yet play the pre-eminent role in environmental degradation, the authors expect its impacts will accelerate over coming decades. Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees celsius.

“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,” said Co-chair Professor Josef Settele.

“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

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