The United Nations just issued its first Global Assessment report since 2005, with the stunning proclamation that 25 of all species on Earth are vulnerable to extinction. According to the report, that percentage means around 1 million species on Earth “already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.”
Any way you slice it, the report paints an ominous picture, says Sir Robert Watson, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in a press statement.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” Watson said. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The good news? The UN report says it isn’t too late to make a difference—but we have to start making it, beginning at the local level.
“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably—this is also key to meeting most other global goals,” Watson said. “By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
As for what’s at stake if we don’t act now, Watson doesn’t mince words.
“We are indeed threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric” of humanity, Watson told The Associated Press. “Business as usual is a disaster.”
A Truly Global Crisis
No corner of the globe has been spared in the biodiversity crisis now facing the planet, the report says. Over 40 percent of all amphibian species are vulnerable to extinction, and the same can be said for a over a third of marine mammals. Nearly 33 percent of all reef-forming corals are also threatened by human-caused global warming and increased pollution.
The failure of reef-forming coral, as witnessed in the recent mass beachings of 2014-2017, shows that the animals that live within coral reefs would also be threatened by their failure. Another 0.9 degrees (0.5 degrees Celsius) in warming and the world’s reefs dwindle by 70 to 90 percent. Raise the global water temperature by 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) and 99 percent of the world’s reefs will face a crisis of survival.
On land, the issues are just as dire. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent. Since the 16th century, the planet has seen 680 vertebrae extinctions, with more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture becoming extinct by 2016.
Twenty-three percent of all birds threatened, meanwhile, have already seen their environments further negatively impacted through climate change.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Global Assessment, in a press statement.
“The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”
While the report offers a grim diagnosis to the planet, the causes aren’t surprising. The Global Assessment highlights five issues plaguing Earth’s various populations. Ranked from the biggest to smallest threat, they are: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution; and (5) invasive alien species.
The statistics that back up these threats show their power to challenge global ecosystems. Seventy-five percent of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been “significantly altered” by human actions, although the report notes that this trend has been less severe in areas held or managed by indigenous groups.
But overall, a third of the world’s land surface and almost 75 percent of freshwater resources have become devoted to crop or livestock production. Fifty-five percent of all ocean area is covered by industrial fishing.
When humans change a natural environment, they’re likely doing so to make it serve their own needs. The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300 percent since 1970, according to the report, and raw timber harvest has risen by 45 percent. Roughly 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are extracted globally every year.
It’s tremendously profitable; the World Bank estimates that the combined value of agriculture, forestry, and fishing across the planet is over $3 trillion. But the Global Assessment suggests that such practices are becoming unsustainable.
Capturing a snapshot of global biodiversity is a heady task, and the UN hopes this Global Assessment is the most comprehensive in human history.
Written by 145 authors from 50 countries over the past three years, the report has an additional 310 contributing writers, all of whom relied upon a systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources. For the first time in a study of this size, the UN sought out indigenous voices to speak to local concerns on biodiversity.
Looking for Solutions
Those indigenous communities could offer a glimmer of hope to the world. Around 25 percent of the planet is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous groups. Looking closer, around 35 percent of that area is formally protected, with another 35 percent showing very low outside intervention.
According to the Assessment, nature managed by indigenous groups is “under increasing pressure, but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.”
While imperfect stewards, indigenous groups are seemingly better at balancing the needs of the Earth and their populations than much of the rest of the planet.
“Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways,” says a summary of the report.
The summary continues, “Recognition of the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of indigenous peoples and local communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration and sustainable use.”
Other potential solutions in the report include promoting good agricultural and agroecological practices, ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management, promoting practices to reduce soil erosion, and improving access to green spaces in urban areas.
“We have already seen the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change, such as innovative policies by many countries, local authorities and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide,” Watson said in the press statement.
“From the young global shapers behind the #VoiceforthePlanet movement, to school strikes for climate, there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future.”