Destruction of nature is as big a threat to humanity as climate change
We are destroying nature at an unprecedented rate, threatening the survival of a million species – and our own future, too. But it’s not too late to save them and us, says a major new report.
“The evidence is incontestable. Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our well-being at least as much as human-induced climate change.”
With these words chair Robert Watson launched a meeting in Paris to agree the final text of a major UN report on the state of nature around the world – the biggest and most thorough assessment to date, put together by 150 scientists from 50 countries.
The report, released today, is mostly grim reading. We humans have already significantly altered three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of the oceans. More than a third of land and three-quarters of freshwater resources are devoted to crops or livestock.
Around 700 vertebrates have gone extinct in the past few centuries. Forty per cent of amphibians and a third of coral species, sharks and marine mammals look set to follow.
Less room for wildlife
Preventing this is vital to save ourselves, the report says. “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” says one of the the report’s authors, 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.”
The main reason is simple. Our expanding farms and cities are leaving less room for wildlife. The other major causes are the direct exploitation of wildlife such as hunting, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species. Climate change is set to become ever more destructive.
But we can still turn things around, the report says. “Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change,” it states.
It also says that where land is owned or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, there has been less destruction and sometimes none at all.
The aim of the report, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), is to provide an authoritative scientific basis for international action. The hope is that it will lead to the same pressure for action as the latest scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on limiting warming to 1.5°C.
“Good knowledge is absolutely essential for good governance,” says Watson, who chaired the IPCC from 1997 to 2002. “I’m optimistic that this will make a difference.”
But the challenge is immense. All countries except the US have ratified the 1992 UN Convention of Biodiversity and are supposed to be conserving biodiversity and promoting its sustainable use.
Despite this, more than 80 per cent of the agreed international targets for 2020 will not be met, says the report. In fact, as of 2016, half the signatory countries hadn’t yet drawn up plans on how to meet the targets.
The problem isn’t just our focus on economic growth regardless of the impact on the natural world. Current plans for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero to limit climate change rely heavily on bioenergy, which requires a lot of land. This will accelerate species loss as well as threatening food and water security, says the report.
In fact, the bioenergy push is already causing harm. For instance, rainforests are being cut down in Indonesia and Malaysia to grow palm oil to make biodiesel for cars in Europe.
Transforming our civilisation to make it more sustainable will require more connected thinking, the report says. “There’s a very fragmented approach,” says Watson. “We’ve got to think about all these things in a much more holistic way.”
For instance, there are ways of tackling climate change that will help biodiversity too, such as persuading people to eat less meat and planting more trees. But the devil is in the detail – artificial plantations would benefit wildlife far less than restoring natural forests.
Some of the solutions set out in the report may not be welcome to all. In particular, it effectively calls for wealthy people to consume less, suggesting that changing the habits of the affluent may be central to sustainable development worldwide.