One million species on brink of extinction

The assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has found that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction.

The biodiversity report is the first intergovernmental report of its kind and was compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries over three years, with additional inputs from 310 contributing authors.

Co-chair of the IPBES biodiversity report Professor Sandra Diaz says that the report shows the critical state of the world’s environment.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point.”

“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,” she says.

Human activities driving extinction

The IPBES biodiversity report examines both land-based and marine habitats, with worrying finding across both natural environments.

In regards to land-based habitats, close to 75% have been significantly altered by human actions. This had led to the abundance of native species across most major land-based habitats to fall by at least 20%.

At least 680 vertebrate species has been driven to extinction since the 16th century.

Marine environments didn’t fare much better.

66% of these environments have been significantly altered by human actions. This had lead to almost 33% of reef-forming corals now facing extinction.

40% of amphibian species and more than a third of all marine mammals are also threatened with extinction.

The destructive impact of agriculture

One of the most destructive human activities is agriculture.

More than 1/3 of the world’s land surface and 75% of fresh water production is now devoted to crop or livestock production.

However, it isn’t only land that agriculture is impacting. More than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 breeds still threatened.

Deforestation rainforest agriculture
Deforestation in Aceh, Indonesia.

Professor Josef Settele who also co-chaired the IPBES biodiversity report, says that the loss of natural environments can be directly related to human activity.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed.”

The key drivers of the change in nature

The report highlighted the five drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts.

Those key drivers are changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

The report notes with climate change already impacting nature on varying levels, from ecosystems to genetics, its impact is expected to increase in the coming decades.

Experts say that it is these key drivers that need to be addressed in order to make significant changes to the future of the natural world.

Australian experts have reacted to the newest report.

Professor Ralf Buckley

Director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research at Griffith University

“For corporations and currencies and governments, the world watches for the slightest signs of growth or decline, and responds instantly. For the global environment that supports us all, we have powerful indicators of long-term decline, but we have ignored them for decades. It’s essentially asset stripping by unscrupulous managers. We are all equal shareholders in the global environment, but the economy is run by financial and political power brokers.

Historically, people who got rich by damaging nature still came out ahead, because they used their wealth to buy themselves and their children the best bits of the world, and they didn’t care about everyone else. But now the damage is overwhelming the whole world, so there won’t be any best bits left for wealth to buy. Today’s ageing power-brokers will be dead, but their kids and grandkids, alive right now, will suffer with everyone else. That’s what will eventually drive major social change. Let’s hope it happens before billions die.

How can we reverse human impacts on nature? The best incentive is human health. People care only vaguely about nature, but very strongly and immediately about their own health. Now we can show how the two are linked, and that provides new political power for conservation.”

Professor Saul Cunningham

Director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University

“The IPBES assessment provides the most rigorous and up-to-date synthesis of information available regarding the state of global biodiversity.

This report confirms that we are witnessing accelerating pressures on biodiversity globally and that human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before.

Although there was international support for the Aichi biodiversity targets, including from the Australian Government, the assessment finds that this global biodiversity conservation target for 2020 will most likely not be met.

Climate change is one of the pressures on biodiversity, but there are many other important pressures that would not be alleviated by climate mitigation alone.

These conclusions should be treated with the utmost seriousness, biodiversity plays a vital role in the function of our ecosystems and in enriching our lives. Australians are rightfully proud of our unique biodiversity and want to see it conserved, however the record of extinctions in Australia shows us that conservation actions have not been strong enough to meet community expectations.”

Declared interest: Saul was involved in a previous IPBES report (The IPBES Assesment of Pollination, Pollination and Food Production), but had no role in the latest report.

Dr Euan Ritchie

Senior Lecturer in Ecology at Deakin University, and expert in wildlife ecology, management and conservation.

“This report must represent a line in the sand for humanity.
It shows we are failing badly to conserve life on Earth, and this places human survival at genuine risk too.

Just as insects pollinate our crops, our survival and health is linked with so many species in a rich tapestry of connections and interactions between species.

Through climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and other threats caused by humans, we are unravelling this tapestry at an extraordinary rate, and we must act swiftly and substantially to avert economic, environmental, cultural and social disaster.”

Dr Eric Woehler

Associate of IMAS at the University of Tasmania and Convenor of BirdLife Tasmania.

“The global figures are confronting. Increasing rates of habitat loss and degradation, massive increases in non-renewable resources used, and more species threatened with extinction than ever before in human history.

Sadly, Tasmania is not isolated from the global trends detailed so well in the Global Assessment Report.

More of our remarkable birds are listed as Threatened, including the Critically Endangered Swift Parrot and Masked Owl, more of our native habitats are being lost, pollution levels are increasing and climate change, on top of everything else, will push more of our birds to extinction.

The Report highlights the dangers posed by current practices on the adverse effects on natural systems around the planet. No ecosystem is not under threat or pressure. Tasmania’s relative isolation is unable to protect our species and ecosystems.

This isn’t conservationists talking up another bad news story. The Report clearly shows the danger to humanity – the loss of ecosystem services poses particular risks to human food production and human health, exacerbated by the increasing human population

Going forward with a ‘business as usual’ approach is no longer an option. We need to fundamentally change the way we live and use the natural resources around us.

Imagine a future Australia without the many birds we love to see and listen to daily – what shocking legacy for future generations.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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