World / Science & Health

Modern life 'eroding foundations' of human existence, driving a million species to extinction: U.N. report

AFP-JIJI, AP, Reuters

Humanity is squandering the natural capital that has allowed society to thrive, and driving a million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction in the process, the U.N.’s first comprehensive report on biodiversity warned Monday.

Relentless plundering and poisoning of water, wildlife, air, soil and forests threatens societies “at least as much as climate change,” said Robert Watson, a former top NASA scientist who chaired the meeting to validate an executive summary of the report.

The findings are not just about saving plants and animals, but about preserving a world that’s becoming harder for humans to live in, said Watson, adding that the issue also presents economic and security implications as countries fight over scarcer resources.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality-of-life worldwide,” he noted. “We really need to get governments to think beyond GDP.”

Accelerating species loss

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than over the last 10 million years, according to the landmark report.

At least 680 species with backbones have already gone extinct since 1600, it states, while 559 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food have already disappeared.

More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are described as likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored.

Over 40 percent of the world’s amphibian species, more than one-third of the marine mammals and nearly one-third of sharks and fish are also said to be threatened with extinction.

The picture was less clear for insect species, but a tentative estimate suggests 10 percent could become extinct. Nearly half the threatened species identified were plants. Scientists have only examined a small fraction of the estimated 8 million species on Earth.

The accelerating pace of extinctions could tip Earth into the first mass extinction since non-avian dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. Halting and reversing these dire trends will require “transformative change” involving a sweeping overhaul of the way we produce and consume almost everything, especially food, the report concluded.

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” said Eduardo Brondizio, a professor of Anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington and co-chair of the Paris meeting. “It is like using the goose that lays golden eggs to make soup.”

Industrial farming and fishing were identified by the report as major drivers of the crisis, with climate change caused by burning the coal, oil and gas produced by the fossil fuel industry exacerbating the losses.

Watson said pushback from vested interests is likely to be fierce.

“A lot of actors in the fossil fuel industry and agriculture sector would not want to see energy, transportation or agriculture subsidies reduced,” he said. “But these are the hard decisions that governments need to take.”

The 1,800-page “global assessment” report produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the largest, most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the conjoined fates of human wellbeing and the natural world. It was finalized after intense negotiations between IPBES members that concluded in the early hours of Saturday.

Compiled over three years by 450 experts, the report draws from over 15,000 scientific and government sources, and represents a cornerstone of an emerging body of research that suggests the world may need to embrace a new “post-growth” form of economics if it is to avert the risks posed by the cascading effects of pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.

The 39-page executive summary was approved by representatives of 109 nations, and details how our growing footprint and appetites have compromised the natural renewal of resources that sustain civilization, starting with fresh water, breathable air, and productive soil.

Giraffes and zebras congregate under the shade of a tree in the afternoon in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania, last year.
Giraffes and zebras congregate under the shade of a tree in the afternoon in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania, last year. | AP

Vicious cycle

An October report from the U.N.’s climate science panel painted a similarly dire picture for climate change, and likewise highlighted the need for social transformation “on an unprecedented scale” to cap the rise in temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).

Climate change and biodiversity loss, it turns out, feed off each other in a vicious cycle. Deforestation and industrial agriculture are major drivers of species and ecosystem decline, but also account for at least a quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change, in turn, is pushing thousands of animals and plants out of their comfort zones, and intensifies the kind of heat waves and droughts that recently fuelled unprecedented fires in Australia, Indonesia, Russia, Portugal, California and Greece.

Top causes of species loss

For the first time, the U.N. body ranked the top five causes of species loss and the degradation of nature.

By a long shot, the first two are diminished or degraded habitat, and hunting for food or trade, often illicit, in body parts.

About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85 percent of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost as forests, grasslands and other areas are turned into farms, cities and other developments making it harder for species to survive, the report said. All but seven percent of major marine fish stocks are in decline or exploited to the limit of sustainability, despite efforts by regional management organizations to fish sustainably.

Climate change is third on the list, but is likely to move up as the burning of fossil fuels makes it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.

“We can see the climate change signal getting stronger really, really quickly,” said IPBES co-chair Sandra Diaz, a professor at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina.

Numbers four and five are pollution — 400 million metric tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste are dumped into oceans and rivers each year — and alien species, such as rats, mosquitoes, snakes and plants that hitch rides on ships or planes. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70 percent since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“Every extinction of a species is a failure of humankind,” said Alexandre Antonelli, director of the U.K.’s Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, in response to the report.

A fisherman unloads his catch in the port of Suao, north eastern Taiwan in 2015. Development that
A fisherman unloads his catch in the port of Suao, north eastern Taiwan in 2015. Development that’s led to loss of habitat, climate change, overfishing, pollution and invasive species is causing a biodiversity crisis, scientists say in a new United Nations science report released Monday. | AP

Policy conflicts likely

The overlapping drivers of global warming and biodiversity loss point to shared solutions, but there is potential for policy conflict too, the new report cautioned.

Plans to green the global economy reserve a crucial role for burning some biofuels and locking away the carbon dioxide released, a technology known as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.

But the huge tracts of land needed to grow energy crops on this scale — roughly twice the size of India — would clash with the expansion of protected areas and reforestation efforts, not to mention food production.

Indigenous peoples, the report found, have slowed the rate of degradation across the quarter of Earth’s land mass over which they have some form of tenure, using traditional knowledge and techniques.

The forests they manage, for example, soak up more carbon dioxide and are less prone to fire. But the global economy’s insatiable appetite for fresh resources is rapidly overwhelming their stewardship.

The newly released biodiversity report does not set benchmarks for progress or “last chance” deadlines for action, as the 2018 climate report did.

But in an open letter, some 600 experts, business leaders and celebrities led by conservationist Jane Goodall urged world leaders to “halt the decline in Nature”.

“We must radically change the way we live, including how we use energy to power our societies, grow our food, and manage our waste,” they wrote.

The U.N. panel isn’t mandated to make explicit policy recommendations.

But it does point unmistakably to actions needed: reducing meat consumption, a halt to deforestation in tropical countries, discouraging luxury consumption, slashing perverse subsidies and embracing the concept of a low-growth economy. That involves concerted action by governments, companies and people.

With the report, the scientific community has made an impassioned appeal to governments and businesses worldwide to confront “vested interests” they say are blocking reforms needed to save the Earth’s ecosystems.

“If we want to leave a world for our children and grandchildren that has not been destroyed by human activity, we need to act now,” said Watson.

A key meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in China in October 2020 “will be a crucial milestone to see if there is political will to take the evidence gathered to start transformative changes,” he added.

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