One million species in peril

May 7, 2019

Nature

In the Americas, the iconic Baltimore oriole is threatened by deforestation

Unrestrained capitalist development has killed off thousands of species and now threatens a million more.  1 in 4 species are at risk of extinction — what has been able to be documented thus far. “We need to shift it to an idea of a fulfilling life that is more aligned with a good relationship with nature, and a good relationship with other people, with the public good.  We need to change the stories in our heads, because they are the ones that are now enacted in decisions all the way from the individual up to government.”

Land degradation through human activities is negatively affecting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people and pushing the planet towards a sixth mass extinction, according to IPBES.  The main drivers are unsustainable agriculture and forestry, climate change, and, in some areas, urban expansion, roads and mining.  Land degradation includes forest loss and, while globally this loss has slowed due to reforestation and plantations, it has accelerated in tropical forests that contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth. Around 12 million hectares of forest in the world’s tropical regions were lost in 2018, equivalent to 30 football fields per minute, according to a recent report.

Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’ There is extensive global coverage of a major new United Nations-led report which concludes that human activity threatens up to one million species with extinction. The report is from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international group of more than 140 scientists and policymakers. Among its headline findings, the report says land-use change driven by humans has caused the largest threat to nature, with climate change also being a “key factor”, BBC News reports.

BBC News also carries “five key takeaways” from the new report, as well as an article of five key graphics from the report. One of these graphics compares the impact of climate change to other key drivers of species loss. The Guardian and the i newspaper carry the report’s findings on their frontpages. The Guardian notes that the report says the loss of species could have “ominous” repercussions in terms of driving “climate instability”. The Times carries a profile of Sir Bob Watson, chair of the IPBES. Watson is a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Financial Times notes that some of the report’s findings echo those of the IPCC report on 1.5C of global warming. The FT article says: “Rising temperatures – already 1C above pre-industrial levels – combined with more extreme weather and average sea levels rising by 3mm per year are affecting wildlife worldwide. Climate change has already altered the distribution of almost half of land mammals.”. The Daily Telegraph focuses on the report’s recommendations for how individuals could help stem biodiversity loss, including by “eating organic” and sponsoring local beekeepers. Meanwhile, the New York Times says that the report calls for “transformative change”. The article adds: “The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for ‘transformative changes’ that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.” InsideClimate News looks into what the new report says about the threats posed to wildlife by climate change. Reuters reports that, in wake of the report, French president Emmanuel Macron said his government will work on new measures to protect biodiversity. Unearthed has released an in-depth feature on the biodiversity crisis in wake of the report. The report’s findings are also covered by, among many others, CNN, Nature, Independent, Hill, MailOnline and Press Association.

BBC correspondent Matt McGrath extracted key messages.

1 – “Boy, we are in trouble”.  This phrase was uttered by Prof Sir Bob Watson who has chaired this report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).  While he went on to explain that there is still hope and much we can do to save nature, I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on just how much trouble we are in.

Globally, two billion people rely on wood to meet their primary energy needs. Around 70% of cancer drugs are natural or are synthetic products inspired by nature.

Then there’s all that water that nature cleans, all the food it provides, all the CO2 it absorbs, all the storms that it blocks.

I could go on, but the picture is very plain.  Humans are more dependent on nature now than at any time in our history.

Over the past 50 years, as the world’s population has doubled, we have pulled more people out of poverty than ever before.

TimberImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionHumans have chopped and burned their environment in the name of economic development

And how have we done it?  By burning, poisoning and trashing large sections of the most biodiversity-rich lands and oceans.  This has killed off thousands of species and now threatens a million more.

“Nature is changing in part because there’s more of us and we are consuming more,” said one of the IPBES co-ordinating lead authors, Dr Kate Brauman.  “As people become more affluent they have bigger footprints, they eat more they drive more and they fly more.”

2 – “We need to change the stories in our heads…”

One key message from the assessment is that we need to re-evaluate what we mean by the idea of a “good life”.

For centuries, in western culture, this has all been about accumulating wealth, working hard, making sacrifices for the benefits of our children.

Progress, as defined in many families, has meant children earning more than their parents. More money, more things.  “We need to change the way we think about what a good life is, we need to change the social narrative that puts an emphasis on a good life depending on a high consumption and quick disposal,” said Prof Sandra Diaz, one of the co-chairs of the IPBES report.

“We need to shift it to an idea of a fulfilling life that is more aligned with a good relationship with nature, and a good relationship with other people, with the public good.

“We need to change the stories in our heads, because they are the ones that are now enacted in decisions all the way from the individual up to government.”

She added: “Changing that is not easy but this is what it would take to reach the better future for the children that are born this year.”

3 – The value of nature or the nature of value?

One of the major themes of this assessment is the term “nature’s contribution to people”.

This is a central concept that the authors really want to drive home.

While it looks like a bland bit of bureaucratese, it actually carries a lot of weight.

For a long time economists have tried to encourage the idea that the value of nature was best expressed in monetary terms.

They have argued that this makes it easier to explain to politicians and citizens that wetlands or pollinators matter because they have value and contribute to the economy in a real financial sense.

The phrase they have used to capture this sense of the value of nature is “ecosystems services”.  But some ecologists argue that a financial definition is very damaging for nature, allowing it to be commodified and treated as just another good.

This new assessment wants the world to move on from measuring nature’s value in pounds, dollars or yen. It wants to ensure that the full value of natural resources are taken into account.

“If you have a natural forest it doesn’t appear at all in your account books at national level, your wealth is not affected at all,” said Ina Porras, from the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“The moment you allow the extraction of timber then your GDP will increase – it’s only by allowing the destruction of this resource that the economy seems to be growing.”

“What we need to do is change that because that forest is providing many other services that are simply not accounted, if you destroy it, looks as if you are increasing your wealth but you are not.”

4 – Local is good for global…

graphic showing how one in four species of those assessed by the IUCN Red List are at risk of extinction, including 40% of amphibians and 14% of birds

One of the key differences in this report is that the authors have worked hard to include a broader range of knowledge than in many typically “western” scientific studies.

They have sought out indigenous and local knowledge and given it due weight in the report.

One key finding is that while nature is declining in lands managed by local communities, it is declining less rapidly than in other areas.

The authors say that local knowledge and understanding on how to manage nature should be given more weight by governments. We can all learn from them.

The Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, has seen evidence of this power of local knowledge in action.

Media caption“Species are going extinct at a faster rate than we’ve seen for millions of years” – Laura Foster reports

After the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) treaty was signed in 1994, there were expectations that hybrid varieties of maize from the US would swamp local, native breeds.

“The farmers there tell me that the locally adapted traditional varieties of maize do better under climate change with increasing droughts,” says Dr Rinku Roy Chowdhury, from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who has worked in the region.

“But they are not sure, so they are hedging their bets and investing in several different varieties.

“It is a really interesting process of decision-making under uncertainty which is we are all trying to do as scientists focused on global change. It is humbling and illuminating to see that we have different types of scientists in these local farmers, thinking and dealing with climate change.”

5 – 12 months to save the Earth? Not quite…

One key takeaway from this report is that political efforts to enshrine protection of nature have fallen desperately flat.

Back in 2010, at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Aichi, Japan, delegates set themselves a series of targets for conservation for 2020.

According to the new assessment, good progress has only been made on four of the 20 goals.

The negative trends in species loss will also make the Sustainable Development Goals – the UN blueprint for addressing global challenges such as poverty, environmental degradation and peace – harder to achieve.

Sold for a song: Rare birds captured for their tuneful voices

Threat to food as biodiversity declines

What would a world without humans be like?

This will have real consequences for real people as they experience hunger, health issues, water scarcity and poverty in general.

So is there any political progress on the horizon?

Well, just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) informed the Paris agreement on global warming in 2015, this IPBES report will inform the talks on a “new deal for nature and people”.

This is due to be negotiated at a key meeting in China next year.

If a new global deal on nature is to be struck, then it will probably need the participation of heads of state.

Right now, despite the evidence from the IPBES report, that seems a very big ask.

**

BBC

Nature’s emergency: Where we are in five graphics, 5 May 2019

Deforestation in the Philippines
Deforestation in the Philippines

The felling of forests, the plundering of seas and soils, and the pollution of air and water are together pushing the natural world to the brink.

That’s the warning more than 500 experts in 50 countries are expected to give in a major UN-backed report, due to be published on Monday.

The assessment will highlight the losses that have hit the natural world over the past 50 years and how the future is looking bleak for tens to hundreds of thousands of species.

The document, from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), is also expected to set out an urgent rescue plan for nature.

So what do we know about the health of the planet in terms of biodiversity (the variety of living things on Earth and the ecosystems they belong to)?

1. The world’s biodiversity is vanishing fast

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a critical measure of our impact on nature.

Almost 100,000 species have been assessed so far for this inventory of endangered species. Of these, more than a quarter are threatened with extinction, ranging from Madagascar’s lemurs to amphibians like frogs and salamanders, and plants such as conifers and orchids.

graphic showing how one in four species of those assessed by the IUCN Red List are at risk of extinction, including 40% of amphibians and 14% of birds
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The assessments aren’t yet complete, and we don’t even know exactly how many animals, fungi and plants are on the planet. Estimates range from about two million species to approximately one trillion, but most experts go for around 11 million species or fewer.

Scientists believe the Earth is being driven towards a “mass extinction event” – only the sixth in the last half-billion years.

“There is now overwhelming evidence that we are losing the planet’s species at an alarming speed,” Prof Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, told BBC News.

The last time we had a similar situation was about 66 million years ago, which was caused by an asteroid hitting Earth, he said, though this time, “humans are the ones to blame”.

Current extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than before humans came along, and future rates are likely to about 10,000 times higher, according to estimates.

Sudan was the last of his kind
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died in March 2018

Regions with extraordinary richness of life are of particular concern, such as the African continent, which is the last place on Earth with a range of large mammals.

study published last year by IPBES said that the actions of humanity could lead to the extinction of half of African birds and mammals by the end of 2100.  It also found 42% of land-based animal and plant species in Europe and Central Asia had declined in the last decade.

2. Among the biggest threats to wildlife are habitat loss, climate change and pollution

According to a recent study, while climate change is a growing threat, the main drivers of biodiversity decline continue to be the loss of natural habitat to farming for food, fuel and timber, and the overexploitation of plants and animals by humans through logging, hunting and fishing.

Biodiversity drivers
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Mammals such as the pangolin are being pushed to extinction by illegal hunting for scales and meat. Unsustainable logging is contributing to the decline of the likes of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, while expanding agriculture is pushing out animals such as the cheetah.

“Governments have focused on climate change far more than they have focused on loss of biodiversity or land degradation,” IPBES’ chairman, Prof Sir Bob Watson, told the BBC.

“All three are equally important to human wellbeing.”

3. Animals and plants are disappearing and so is the land they rely upon for natural habitat

Land degradation through human activities is negatively affecting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people and pushing the planet towards a sixth mass extinction, according to IPBES.

The main drivers are unsustainable agriculture and forestry, climate change, and, in some areas, urban expansion, roads and mining.

Land degradation includes forest loss and, while globally this loss has slowed due to reforestation and plantations, it has accelerated in tropical forests that contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth.

Around 12 million hectares of forest in the world’s tropical regions were lost in 2018, equivalent to 30 football fields per minute, according to a recent report.

Deforestation

4. Habitat conversion drives biodiversity loss

According to IPBES, only a quarter of land on Earth is substantively free of the impacts of human activities. This is projected to decline to just one-tenth by 2050.

“The issue of land use is central to the major environmental challenges we are experiencing,” Prof Mercedes Bustamante of the University of Brasilia told BBC News.

Since 2001, Indonesia has lost millions of hectares of pristine rainforest. Losses in 2018 declined by around 40% thanks to stricter government legislation and a wet period that limited forest fires, but nonetheless palm oil plantations have gradually eroded the only remaining habitats of endangered orang-utan populations.

Map showing that Indonesia and the surrounding area has seen million of hectares of tree cover loss since 200Presentational white space

In the lowland forests of South East Asia, on islands like Borneo and Sumatra, IPBES predicts that one in three types of birds and nearly a quarter of all mammals will be lost if the rate of forest degradation continues.

5. Some of the last great rainforests are being wiped out

The Amazon region holds the largest tropical rainforest in the world, which is home to plant and animal species that are still being discovered.

Rondônia, in the western part of the Amazon, is one of the most deforested parts of the Amazon region. Trees are being lost as forests are cut down for growing crops or for pastures to graze cattle, as well as for logging and mining.

Over time, the landscape becomes a mixture of cleared fields, settlements and fragments of forest.

2018

Satellite image of Rondonia, Brazil, in 2018

1984

Satellite image of Rondonia, Brazil, in 1984

IPBES will formally release its first intergovernmental assessment on Monday 6 May, detailing the past losses and future prospects for nature and humans.