Around the world, nature is in decline at an unprecedented rate and many of Earth’s ecosystems face a catastrophic level of risk, according to a new report summary released Monday by the United Nations. This “ominous” trend is due entirely to human activities.
Up to one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction — many within decades — unless “transformative change” is made across local, national, and global levels to curb humanity’s impact on the planet.
The scale of action required to avoid significant loss and the subsequent impacts on human welfare is a “system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” the report states.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report is set to be released in full later this year and will be the most comprehensive assessment ever completed on the state of the world’s ecosystems. With 145 authors from 50 countries, the authors reviewed roughly 15,000 scientific and government sources, as well as utilized indigenous and local knowledge, to examine changes in nature over the past five decades.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said Sir Robert Watson, IPBES chair. “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.”
According to the summary, human activity is driving this species loss — from impacts due to land use and urban development, pollution, and the effects of human-caused climate change.
Biodiversity loss is not merely an environmental issue, the release emphasizes; loss of this scale has vast economic, social, and security implications. “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said assessment co-chair Josef Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
While the risk of one million species going extinct has already grabbed headlines around the world, the report summary contains a slew of other stunning facts. Here are some of the numbers you may have missed.
Loss that’s already occurred
Since 1900, the “average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats” has dropped by at least 20%.
Meanwhile, the number of invasive species in 21 countries has increased by about 70% since 1970. These species are not native to the habitat but, for one reason or another, have been brought into a new region — the global shipping industry, for example, results in foreign species winding up in new places — and can wreak havoc on the native environment.
At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction by humans since the 16th century. These range from various rodents, butterflies, and other insects to the Dodo bird and Tasmanian tiger.
Roughly half of the living coral that covers reefs has been lost since the 1870s. As climate change accelerates, oceans are becoming more acidic, which puts coral reefs at an even greater risk.
Expected species loss
The report summary states that about 9% — or 500,000 — of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species do not have sufficient habitat needed for their long-term survival, noting that habitat restoration would help reduce this risk.
More than 40% of the world’s amphibians are also threatened with extinction, while almost a third of coral reefs, sharks, and shark relatives (like skates and rays) are at risk, along with more than a third of all marine mammals.
As for the impact from climate change, the world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. As the summary states, “the majority of terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly” with warming between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius — meaning the areas species are best suited to live in will get smaller.
With 2 degrees Celsius of warming, 5% of species are expected to be put at risk of extinction. This could increase to 16% should global temperatures rise by 4.3 degrees Celsius.
Compared to the past 10 million years, this projected rate of species loss is “tens to hundreds of times” greater than the historic average, the summary states, “and the rate is accelerating.”
Changes to the land
As the summary emphasizes, humans are driving these species losses, in large part due to the impact society is having on the land and oceans.
Three-quarters of the Earth’s terrestrial environment has been “severely altered” by human activities, while 66% of the world’s oceans have been impacted. For example, more than 85% of wetlands that existed in 1700 were lost by 2000.
And, since 1992, urban areas have more than doubled.
The consumption of materials per capita around the world has increased by 15% since 1980. And plastic pollution has grown ten-fold during that same period.
Meanwhile, between 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other industrial wastes are dumped into the world’s waters each year. The impacts of this range from harming an animal’s ability to breed to human health risks from water pollution.
Another major way humans have shaped ecosystems is through farming. Since 1970, food crop production has increased by 300%. According to the U.N. assessment summary, half of all agriculture expansion has come at the expense of forests.
Agricultural practices, however, don’t just impact forests. Due to the use of pesticides — along with climate change, loss of flower meadows, and parasites — bee populations are in decline. Three quarters of all crops around the world rely on animal pollination. But due to pollinator loss, between $235 billion and $577 billion in crop value is at risk, according to the summary.
It’s not just producing food on land that’s taking a toll on ecosystems. More than 55% of oceans are subject to industrial fishing. And in 2015, a third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. This has consequences for both human food supply as well as for the species being harvested — unsustainable fishing often risks disturbing the food chain, and can harm species’ ability to adequately repopulate.
All of this has knock-on implications for human security. It’s well-known that climate change is a risk multiplier — it can exacerbate issues and tensions as well as spur new ones. And the same goes for ecosystem and biodiversity loss. As humans’ impact on the natural world increases, it threatens the foundations for safe and stable societies.
Currently, more than 2,500 conflicts related to fossil fuels, water, food, and land are occurring around the world. And between 2002 and 2013, more than 1,000 environmental activists and journalists have been killed — largely due to their work protecting and reporting on these many risks to the planet and those who call it home.