A new UN report on biodiversity makes startling reading. It paints a grim picture of growing degradation of nature and warns about the sustainability of human life on earth if the trend continues. According to the report, up to a million of Earth´s estimated eight million species face extinction, many of them within decades.
The chief of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Sir Robert Watson, says: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever attempted. It is the first intergovernmental report of its kind and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating scientific evidences.
Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades. Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report also draws on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to indigenous peoples and local communities.
The report highlights the fact that 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 a 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.
Among the many findings of the report, all but seven percent of major marine fish stocks are in decline or exploited to the limit of sustainability. At the same time, humanity dumps up to 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, toxic sludge and other waste into oceans and rivers each year.
Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world. Since 1990, Earth has lost 2.9 million hectares — an area more than eight times the size of Germany or Vietnam — of forests that play a critical role in absorbing record-level CO2 emissions.
An important part of the report focuses on the destructive food systems currently prevalent around the world and the need to feed the people in a sustainable manner. To this end, the report recommends local food production, less demand for meat, fewer chemical inputs, use of renewable power, sustainable limits for fisheries, and a sharp decline in tropical deforestation.
The way humanity produces, distributes and consumes food — accounting for a third of land, 75 percent of fresh water use and a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions — is especially destructive. Fertiliser use, which degrades the soil´s ability to grow plants and absorb CO2, has risen four-fold in just 13 years in Asia, and doubled worldwide since 1990.
The UN report also spotlights “harmful subsidies” that encourage environmentally damaging fishing, agriculture, livestock raising, forestry and mining. It details how humans are undermining Earth´s capacity to produce fresh water, clean air and productive soil.
There are many factors – both direct and indirect – driving Nature’s degradation. The direct causes include shrinking habitat and land-use change, hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts, climate change, pollution, and predatory or disease-carrying alien species such as rats, mosquitoes and snakes. There are also two indirect drivers of biodiversity loss: the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume indiscriminately and damage the ecosystem.
The report also points out that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through “transformative change”, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. Transformative change means a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.
The authors of the report write: “The member states of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”
To ensure global sustainable development, the report recommends that governments around the world prioritise environmental issues and frame policies to promote low population growth, sustainable production and a concept of progress, based on well-being, not just the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). People should eat less meat, and energy consumption should decline over time.