We’re on the brink of massive extinction, landmark biodiversity report says

Sumatran elephants are one of many species on the brink of extinction. Rifky, CIFOR
6 May 2019

Biodiversity is declining globally at unprecedented rates, and the rate of extinction is accelerating, with around 1 million species currently at risk of dying out completely within decades, according to the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the most comprehensive report on biodiversity ever produced.

The Assessment comes from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). A summary of the findings was released Monday 6 May, while the report will be published serially in chapters throughout the year.

Three-quarters of the world’s land and about two-thirds of oceans have been significantly altered by humans, and more than 85 percent of all wetlands have been lost. Areas held by Indigenous peoples and local communities have been less changed than others.

On land, the average abundance of native species in most terrestrial habitats has dropped by at least 20 percent, and in the world’s waterways and oceans, over 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and over a third of all marine mammals are threatened with extinction.

At least 680 vertebrate species have disappeared since the 16th century. An estimated 10 percent of insects are in danger.

Three years in the making and compiled by an international team of 145 expert authors from 50 countries, the report draws from over 15,000 scientific sources as well as Indigenous and local knowledge to assess changes over the past five years, painting a thorough picture of how different economic development pathways impact nature.

A local fish harvest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The IPBES report found that lands managed Indigenous and local communities have experienced comparatively less biodiversity loss. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

As the “essential, interconnected web of life on Earth [gets] smaller and increasingly frayed,” we are also sawing off the branch we’re sitting on, said Assessment co-chair Josef Settele, creating a “direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

What’s driving the destruction? The report says the five biggest reasons for change in nature so far are: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

Rapid growth in agriculture, fish, bioenergy and natural material production is a major driver of these changes. Since 1970, crop production has risen 300 percent, and more than a third of the world’s land area and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources now go toward producing crops or livestock. Raw timber harvest has increased 45 percent since the same year.

The report makes clear that this is unsustainable. By 2016, more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture were extinct, and at least 1,000 more breeds are still threatened. Land productivity has decreased 23 percent due to degradation, USD 577 billion worth of crops are at risk annually from loss of pollinators. In 2015, one third of all fishing was done in an unsustainable manner.

Loss of species diversity, down to genetics, poses serious risks to global food security, rendering food sources more susceptible to pests, disease and effects of climate change.

The report also points to a number of indirect drivers of change, including increased population and per-capita consumption; technological innovations (which can impact biodiversity both negatively and positively); and issues of governance and accountability.

“A pattern that emerges is one of global interconnectivity and ‘telecoupling’,” said Assessment co-chair Eduardo S. Brondízio, “with resource extraction and production often occurring in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”

Experts speak at the 7th plenary session in Paris. Diego Noguera, IISD

This all comes under an atmosphere in which greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, with the global average temperature having risen by 0.7 degrees Celsius. Urban areas are swelling, having more than doubled since 1992, and marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, threatening at least 267 species.

The global population has doubled in the last 50 years, and trade has increased tenfold.

The report estimates that current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine 35 out of the 44 targets in the Sustainable Development Goals. With sizable progress only seen on four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that their 2020 deadline will also be missed. As such, the authors observe that “loss of biodiversity is… not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue.”

In creating the conditions for catastrophic biodiversity loss, we are narrowing our own options in the face of an uncertain future, say the authors. “Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting safety net,” said Assessment co-chair Sandra Díaz. “But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point.”

This sentiment was illustrated at the commencement of the IPBES seventh plenary session, held 29 April through 4 May in Paris, culminating in the adoption of the report.

In the opening, a group of children began dancing small, simple steps to a backdrop of images of ecosystems in varying states of health and degradation. Slowly, the dancers increased the intensity and scale of their movements, until they were leaping and sprinting in exhausting exertions, signifying children’s bodies being put on the line in a worsening ecological crisis.

Young dancers perform at the opening of the plenary. Diego Noguera, IISD

The report makes clear that without a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said in a press release. This will directly compromise “the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” he added.

But there’s still hope, the co-authors emphasize. “We still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet,” said Díaz. However, it will require unprecedented global efforts. Alongside more conventional calls for integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take environmental trade-offs into account, the report also critiques the current “limited paradigm of economic growth” in the global economy and calls for “the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy.”

In solution to the five key drivers of change, the report gives five interventions that can incite transformative change: incentives and capacity-building; cross-sectoral cooperation; preemptive action; decision-making in the context of resilience and uncertainty; and environmental law and implementation. The report says that the increased inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities is crucial as well.

In the plenary, the member states of the IPBES acknowledged that “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo,” said Watson but also that “such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”



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