'We're in trouble': Landmark UN report details unprecedented decline in nature

Over one million animal and plant species are now at risk of extinction.

Impressions of the Red Sea - Coral reef DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

NATURE IS MORE at risk now than at any other time in human history with over one million animal and plant species in danger of extinction, according to a UN report on biodiversity. 

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, according to leading scientists in biodiversity and conservation who have worked on the landmark Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report for three years. 

The report has concluded that more than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct – many within decades – unless their habitats are restored. 

Changes in nature caused by decades of poisoning the Earth’s forests, oceans, soil and air threaten society “at least as much as climate change,” said Robert Watson, who chaired the 132-nation meeting which approved a summary report for policymakers. 

The UN report drew on 15,000 sources and from an underlying 1,800-page report, its executive summary details how humanity’s growing footprint and appetites have compromised the natural renewal of resources that sustain civilisation – starting with fresh water, breathable air, and productive soil. 

“We’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations that led to the 39-page summary. 

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature.”

‘Transformative change’

For the first time, the UN body has ranked the top five causes of species lost and the degradation of nature. 

These include: 

  • Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments resulting in habitat loss for plants and animals.
  • Over-fishing the world’s oceans – one-third of the world’s fish stocks are currently over-fished.
  • Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive.
  • Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic waste are dumped into the world’s waters, the report notes. 
  • Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970.

Whether humanity has pushed the planet into a “mass extinction” event may be a matter of definition, but by any measure the rate at which life-forms are disappearing is deeply alarming, scientists have concluded. 

“In each of the five previous mass extinctions, we lost about 75% of species,” said Watson, who is also head of the UN science panel on biodiversity. 

Over the last number of centuries, Earth has lost about 2%. Yet if one examines the rate at which species are dying off, the picture is far bleaker. 

Currently the pace of extinctions is up to several hundred times greater than the average over the last ten million years, the UN report has concluded. At that rate, Earth could hit the 75% extinction mark within a couple of hundred years.    

The UN panel is not mandated to make explicit policy recommendations following the report’s release today. 

It does, however, point unmistakably to actions needed – reduce meat consumption, halt deforestation in tropical countries, discourage luxury consumption, slash perverse subsidies, embrace the concept of a low-growth economy.

Watson has now called for a “transformative change” in human production and consumption. 

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Watson has said. “By ‘transformative change’, we mean a fundamental, system-wide re-organisation.”

With reporting from Associated Press. 

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