A landmark UN report has laid bare humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world, detailing unprecedented rates of decline in biodiversity and nature on land, in the seas and in the sky.
Published on Monday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the sweeping 1,800-page study drew on the work of 145 scientists and 15,000 source materials.
But at its core, IPBES chair Robert Watson said, the report contained one simple message: “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,” he added, with rampant consumption and pollution the primary drivers behind nature’s decline.
Hailed as the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, here are the report’s five key findings:
Up to one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, many within decades.
Unless efforts to protect natural habitats are stepped up, the world could lose 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals.
Nature plays a critical role in providing humans with energy and medicines. More than two billion people rely on wood to meet their primary energy needs, for example, while an estimated four billion people are dependent on natural medicines for their healthcare.
Food sources are at risk too, with more than 75 percent of global food crop types – including fruits, vegetables, coffee and cocoa – reliant on animal pollination and, therefore, at risk from plummeting insect populations.
Watson said that only “transformative change” in humanity’s interaction with nature was capable of halting these trends.
“Unless we act now to reduce the loss of biodiversity, we will undermine human well-being for current and future generations … we need actions,” he said.
‘Chopping down our forests, overfishing our seas’
The report depicted a world ravaged by an insatiable demand for resources, with crop production surging by 300 percent since 1970 and raw timber harvest rising by 45 percent.
The changes have contributed to Earth having less than 70 percent of the forest cover it had prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, approximately 60 billion tonnes of renewable and non-renewable resources are now extracted globally every year, nearly double the amount from three decades ago.
Surges in demand have had a dramatic effect on the natural world, with three-quarters of the world’s landmass and 66 percent of all marine environments now judged to have been “severely altered” by human actions.
Mark Wright, World Wildlife Foundation’s director of science, said the findings “paint a terrifying picture of a broken world”.
“It shows we are chopping down our forests, overfishing our seas and melting the Arctic – and driving the other life we share this planet with to extinction at an unprecedented rate,” Wright added.
“In short, we are destroying our own home.”
Climate change cannot be tackled without saving biodiversity and vice versa, since the natural systems that sustain life on earth are intimately interconnected, and hence warming could wreck entire species.
If the global temperature rises by two degrees Celsius this century compared with pre-industrial levels, a figure within the targets of the landmark global 2015 Paris climate change agreement, then five percent of Earth’s species will be at risk of extinction.
If the current rate of global warming persists, Earth is predicted to heat up by 4.3C against pre-industrial levels by 2100. Were that to happen, as many as one in six of all species could be wiped out.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, said the IPBES study showed scientists had “once again hit the emergency button over the state of our planet”.
“It’s time political and corporate leaders stopped making empty promises and started acting to prevent us sliding towards another mass extinction of life on Earth,” he added.
“Business as usual – destroying the rainforests, emptying the seas of marine life, and polluting our air and water – is getting us there at breakneck speed.”
The report’s authors, meanwhile, said many of the most promising responses to climate change, such as protecting and restoring forests and wetlands, sustainable agriculture and respecting indigenous knowledge, also protect biodiversity and human wellbeing.
Plastic, toxic sludge, fertilisers
As consumption swells, so does the amount of waste being dumped by humans.
In the last three decades alone, plastic pollution has sky-rocketed tenfold.
Meanwhile, the use of fertilisers, which threaten to poison entire ecosystems and wreck soil’s carbon-absorption rates, has doubled in the last 13 years.
Some 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial sources are dumped annually into the world’s waterways, combining with fertiliser runoff to produce more than 400 ocean “dead zones”.
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the UN’s cultural and scientific agency (UNESCO), said the IPBES’ findings must prompt major changes in human beings’ interaction with the natural world.
“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,” Azoulay said.
“Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently,” she added.
‘We need to change’
Amid the findings documenting the natural world’s decline, the authors of the study called for people to create “transformative change” to halt the widespread damage.
“We need to change the way we think about what a good life is, we need to change the social narrative that puts an emphasis on a good life depending on a high consumption and quick disposal,” said Sandra Diaz, one of the report’s co-chairs.
“We need to change the stories in our heads, because they are the ones that are now enacted in decisions all the way from the individual up to government.”
As part of this, IPBES said, humanity ought to shift beyond using traditional economic indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) towards more long-term and holistic considerations concerning economic success and quality of life.
The body also called for more internationally consistent taxation and the ending of all subsidies which contribute to incentivising environmental degradation and exploitation of resources.
WWF’s Wright said there was “no time to waste in turning those words into action”.
“We are the first generation to truly understand what we are doing to our world and the last who can do anything about it,” he added.
Additional reporting by David Child: @