Without transformative change, about one million species are staring down the barrel of extinction.
The projected loss of species is due to human activity, and unless averted will affect the wellbeing of all those who share the planet.
In what’s hoped to be a landmark moment for biodiversity, international scientists and diplomats agreed on a summary of a report assessing the current state and future of the earth’s species.
The report is similar to last year’s huge IPCC climate report.
It’s from an independent intergovernmental body established in 2012, with more than 130 governments as members. Prepared by 145 experts, with contributions from another 310 experts and with 15,000 references to scientific information, or government gathered data it took three years to pull the 1500-page report together.
The report’s purpose is to inform policy-makers.
UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay explained the importance of having evidence collated and agreed upon by 132 countries when it comes to making policy decisions:
“Nothing will ever be the same. No one can say they didn’t know.”
While the unwieldly name of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service’s (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services might not stick in most people’s memory, the terms used to describe the report and the state of the biodiversity will.
“Ominous”, “bleak” and “doom and gloom” are some of the reactions to the report, which paints a picture where humans have been the planet’s house guests from hell.
“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,” said IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson.
He believes “transformative change”, a term stressed in the report as being needed to stem biodiversity decline, will face a fight from some quarters.
“The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”
Eight of the key points in the report are summarised below.
1. It’s worse than you think.
The report is packed with a bewildering array of numbers. The big number of one million species facing extinction is backed up with details of what species are threatened. These include more than 40 percent of amphibians, 33 percent of reef corals and marine mammals, and an estimated 10 percent of insects facing extinction.
Since 1900, the abundance of native species has fallen by at least 20 percent. The rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating. Around 500,000 species don’t have a big enough habitat for long-term survival without restoration.
2. Climate change isn’t the biggest problem, yet.
The report finds five main threats to biodiversity and ranks them.
Land and sea use top the list, followed by exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive species.
Three quarters of land and 66 percent of the sea has been altered by humans. Urban areas have doubled since 1992. We’re also growing more animals to feed a booming population including a growing and hungry middle class. Since 1970 there’s been a 300 percent increase in food crop production.
A quarter of the world’s ice-free land is used for grazing. In just 20 years, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost, mainly to cattle ranching in Latin America and palm oil plantations in South East Asia. Wetlands fare particularly poorly. Over 85 percent of wetlands that were around in 1700 vanished by 2000.
A third of all marine fish are being harvested unsustainably. Sixty percent are harvested at a maximum sustainable level and just 7 percent are being harvested at a lower than sustainable rate.
Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled and the impact of climate change is expected to increase in the coming decades. In some cases it will surpass the impact of land and sea use.
3. Exploitation pays.
Economic incentives often favour expanding economic activity, which sometimes causes environmental harm, not conservation.
In 2015, agricultural support potentially harmful to nature amounted to US$100 billion in countries within the OECD.
Tens of billions are given to the fishing industry as subsidies to maintain or increase catch levels already pushing the boundaries of sustainability.
Mined products contribute more than 60 percent of the GDP of 81 countries, and mining on land has dramatically increased. Currently mined areas account for just 1 percent of the world’s land, but the effects are negative and significant. The report notes there are around 17,000 large-scale mines in operation, but said there are many more small, illegal mines which are harder to trace.
4. We take, but only give rubbish back.
Humans are extracting more from the Earth and producing more waste than ever before. Around 60 billion tons of resources are extracted a year. This figure is up 100 percent since 1980. Globally, per capita consumption of materials has increased 15 percent since 1980.
Between 300 and 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities is dumped annually into the world’s waters. Over 80 percent of global wastewater is being discharged into the environment untreated. Plastic waste has increased by 10 times since 1980.
5. We are not on track
Like drunkenly-made New Year’s resolutions, the good intentions set by the Aichi biodiversity targets haven’t translated to change. Good progress has only been made against four of the 20 targets.
Moderate progress has been made against seven, and poor progress has been made against six of the targets. The summary of the report says:
“Overall, the state of nature continues to decline (12 of 16 indicators show significantly worsening trends).”
Unless something radical changes, it’s unlikely this will alter.
“The goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories.”
6. Losing species matters
We can’t fully replace what we lose.
While scientists tend to shy away from putting a price on the extinction of a species, the effects can be far-reaching.
The claim of impending insect-ageddon may be overstated, but with 10 percent of species probably threatened, there could be an impact on the 75 percent of all crops that require insect pollination.
Approximately four billion people use natural products for healthcare and 70 percent of drugs used to treat cancer are natural, or inspired by nature.
Land and sea ecosystems soak up about 60 percent of the carbon human activity produces.
The negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems undermine progress towards 80 percent (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.
7. Transformative change, not band-aids
Tinkering around the edges of the problems with technical fixes won’t change enough, fast enough.
“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 … By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” said IPBES chair, Watson.
The report states simply that business as usual isn’t an option:
“Except in scenarios that include transformative change, negative trends in nature, ecosystem functions and in many of nature’s contributions to people are projected to continue to 2050 and beyond due to the projected impacts of increasing land/and sea-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change.”
8. It’s not too late
For those who make it to page 32 of the 39-page summary there’s finally some good news. The report writers devote three pages to detailed suggestions for how to achieve transformative change.
These cover everything from governance, economics, to food production and consumption to forestry, marine and fresh water environments, to building sustainable cities which use sustainable energy.
New Zealand is very much on the map
New Zealand may get left off world maps but it’s not immune to the issues the global report raises, and our substantial conservation estate hasn’t stopped our species facing threats.
Last month the Ministry for the Environment published its own set of reports which included grim assessments of New Zealand’s biodiversity.
Almost 4000 native species face the threat of extinction, including all of our frog species, 90 percent of marine birds, 84 percent of reptiles, 76 percent of freshwater fish and 46 percent of plants.
Two thirds of native forest have been removed and 90 percent of wetlands drained. Pasture is now the biggest type of land cover.
NZ’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge director Dr Andrea Byrom said the international report could not be clearer.
“Nature is in peril and humans are the cause.”
She said the loss of biodiversity is beginning to impact human development and economic productivity and the report is a stark wake-up call.
“Put simply, we are making irrevocable changes to nature, and we need to take urgent action to prevent such changes before it is too late.”
The full six-chapter report which includes the data referred to in the summary will be published later this year.