Averting the collapse of nature

Nature is collapsing around us, concludes a new scientific assessment of the state of the planet. As many as 1 million species are threatened with extinction as a result of human behavior, and the pace of those losses is accelerating. All is not lost, however. There is time to avoid the grim future that the report projects — if governments around the world honor their commitments to sustainable development. That is, as always, easier said than done.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a group of 132 member countries (Japan among them), has produced the first report on “the state of nature.” The report, officially titled the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, was three years in the making. It was compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. Based on a systematic review of some 15,000 scientific and government sources, it also is the first such study to include substantial indigenous and local knowledge.

Its conclusions are dire. Of the 8 million estimated plant and animal species on the planet, as many as 1 million — 12.5 percent — could be lost, some within decades. Biodiversity is being lost at the fastest rate in human history and the impact is being felt throughout the ecosphere. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and more than one-third of all marine mammals are threatened. It is estimated that 10 percent of insects risk extinction. The authors reckon that, on average, 25 percent of all species are threatened with extinction across terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups.

Blame humankind. The report identifies land use change, overfishing, pollution, climate change and population growth as the principal causes for this devastating state of affairs. Strikingly, 75 percent of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human activity. Climate change is a well-known cause, but globalization has been devastating as well. Trade and travel have facilitated the spread of invasive species and diseases that devastate ecosystems with no natural defenses against alien intruders.

Rising prosperity has contributed too. Urbanization, critical to development, has resulted in a more than doubling of the size of urban areas worldwide since 1992. The report points to increased population and per-capita consumption as “key indirect drivers” of biodiversity loss. For example, in 2015, 33 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels, while 60 percent were “maximally sustainably fished,” putting them on the edge of collapse. It is hard to disagree with Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the nature program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who argued that the report “means that nature is collapsing around us.”

This is for many, despite the new study, an old story. Not only have there been abundant warnings but there are several frameworks to address the problem — and well-rehearsed explanations for why they have failed. Take the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, developed at the Conference of Parties to the Convention in Nagoya in 2010. They are 20 time-bound, measurable targets across five strategic goals designed to help countries prevent the loss of biodiversity and improve benefits from biodiversity to society. They are supposed to be met by 2020, but the IPBES report concludes that there has been good progress on components of only four of the targets, and most are likely to be missed by the 2020 deadline. Negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will also undermine progress toward 80 percent (35 out of 44) of the targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Robert Watson, chair of IPBES, argues that the only way to escape the cycle of warning and inaction is to explain the damage in terms of its impact on humankind. As Watson put it, the accelerating rate of extinctions “means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely.” Or, as Josef Settele, cochair of the IPBES report, warned, the loss of biodiversity “constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

It is not too late to make a difference, but that is possible only if the world acts at “every level from local to global,” said Watson. That will take transformative change, which the IPBES report describes as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” It is a huge undertaking, but one that must begin with a rethinking of development and the meaning of economic growth.

Japan is in a position to make this case with passion and purpose as Group of 20 chair this year. The nation’s commitment to the SDGs, the cornerstone of Japan’s G20 agenda, is the place to start and the means to turn these dire projections into inducements for real action.