A thorough planetary health check-up for the first time is showing that Earth’s natural life support systems are deteriorating faster as warned by the leading scientists of the world. Now, this loss of Earth’s natural life poses a threat to human society.
According to the Global Assessment Report by the United Nations, the destruction is taking place at a rate of tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years.
As per the study compiled over three years by a team consisting of 450 scientists and diplomats and more, natural ecosystems have lost nearly half of their area, and a million of species are at risk of extinction as a result of uncontrolled human activities.
An Overview of Biodiversity Losses Incurred
The losses are jaw-dropping. The wild mammals’ biomass has fallen by 82%. Two out of five amphibian species are at risk of extinction and one-third of reef-forming corals flickering out beneath the oceans. At least 10% insects which are crucial to plant pollination are threatened with extinction, and their populations have crashed in some regions. Crop output up to $577bn (£440bn) is at risk due to Pollinator loss, and 23% of global land productivity declined due to land degradation. Moreover, rainforests are desiccating into savannahs.
The “ominous” knock-on effects on humankind like shortages of freshwater and climate instability will worsen unless drastic remedial action is taken, the authors said.
The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”
said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “We have lost time. We must act now.”
Hundreds of scientists compiled 15,000 academic studies and reports from indigenous communities living on the frontline of change establishing the web of interactions between biodiversity, climate and human well-being.
After the events like school strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament, and Green New Deal debates in the US and Spain, the authors are hopeful that the 1,800-page assessment of biodiversity will bring the nature crisis into the global spotlight as happened after the release of 1.5C report last year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, the paper warns that even if the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C to 2C is reached, there will be profound shrinkage in the range of most of the species.
“We tried to document how far in trouble we are to focus people’s minds, but also to say it is not too late if we put a huge amount into transformational behavioral change,” said David Obura, one of the main authors on the report and a global authority on corals. “This is fundamental to humanity. We are not just talking about nice species out there; this is our life support system.”
The deterioration primarily caused by agriculture and fishing. Food production has increased substantially since the 1970s to feed a growing global population and generating jobs and economic growth. To fulfill the requirement of meat for human consumption, grazing areas for cattle now occupy about 25% of the ice-free land worldwide and cause 18% and more of global greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, crop production uses 12% of land and leads to 7% or less of emissions.
A picture of a planet painted by the report shows that the human footprint is so large that there is hardly any space for anything else. Three-fourth of total land turned into farm fields, concrete structures, dam reservoirs or others. Crop or livestock cultivation covers three-quarters of rivers and lakes, and two-thirds of the marine environment got converted to fish-farms, subsea mines, shipping routes, and other projects. Cash-crops and livestock of high-value are replacing forests and different nature-rich ecosystems.
The result is that more than 500,000 species are facing scarcity of habitat for surviving in the long run. Many are on course towards extinction within decades. Wetlands have been drained by 83% since 1700 affecting water quality and birdlife. Forests are diminishing, particularly in the tropics. These monocultures are more vulnerable to diseases, drought, and other climate breakdown impacts.
Impact on Ocean, Marine Life, And Other Water Systems
The impact on oceans is crucial. Industrial fishing occupies more than half the oceans worldwide and about one-third of fish populations remain overexploited. Free marine areas from human pressure left to only 3%.
More than 80% of untreated wastewater gets pumped into streams, lakes, and oceans containing 300-400m tons of heavy metals, toxic slurry, and other industrial discharges. Plastic waste has risen tenfold since 1980, affecting 43% of marine mammals, 86% of marine turtles, and 44% of seabirds. Fertilizer run-off has created 400 “dead zones,” affecting an area as big as the UK.
The representatives from the governments worldwide fine-tuned a summary for policymakers over the past week and that includes remedial scenarios, “transformative change” required across all areas of government, massive investments in forests, revised trade rules, other green infrastructure, and of course changes in individual behavior such as lower consumption of meat and material goods.
“We have been displacing our impact around the planet from frontier to frontier,” said Eduardo Brondizio, an IPBES co-chair from Córdoba National University, Argentina. “But we are running out of frontiers…If we see business as usual going forward, then we’ll see a very fast decline in the ability of nature to provide what we need and to buffer climate change.”
Andy Purvis, Professor, Natural History Museum in London and one of the main authors of the report, said he was encouraged that nations have agreed on the need for better medicine.
“This is the most thorough, the most detailed and most extensive planetary health check. The take home message is that we should have gone to the doctor sooner. We are in a bad way. The society we would like our children and grandchildren to live in is in real jeopardy. I cannot overstate it,” he said. “If we leave it to later generations to clear up the mess, I don’t think they will forgive us.”
The issue of biodiversity loss is on the G8 agenda for the very first time. Partha Dasgupta, a professor at Cambridge University, has been commissioned by the UK to write a study on the economic case for nature that will serve a similar function as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. China will also host a landmark UN conference next year to draw up new goals for biodiversity globally.
Cristiana Pașca-Palmer, the head of the UN’s top biodiversity organization, said she was both concerned and hopeful. “The report today paints quite a worrying picture. The danger is that we put the planet in a position where it is hard to recover,” she said. “But there are a lot of positive things happening. Until now we haven’t had the political will to act. But public pressure is high. People are worried and want action.”
The report says that radical change in values and goals across society, politics, economics, and technology needed urgently at this crucial time. Changes also needed across governments so that local, national and international policymakers are aligned to tackle the primary causes of planetary deterioration. Indigenous communities and other forest dwellers and small-holders also need greater support.
“The situation is tricky and difficult, but I would never give up. The report shows there is a way out. I believe we can still bend the curve,” said Josef Settele, an IPBES co-chair and entomologist at the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany. “People shouldn’t panic, but they should begin drastic change. Business as usual with small adjustments won’t be enough.”