You may remember the joy of spotting a favourite animal or plant at a place you would infrequently visit. When, the next time you visited, they had disappeared, you’d come up with a banal explanation that never included extinction. But now a United Nations report says that unless there is a change in approach, we will lose 1 million species forever.
The landmark report, released on May 6, said that species extinction is happening at rates no one had previously imagined. It also said it is happening as a “direct result of human activity”.
The 40-page summary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is just the first part of what is expected to run into thousands of pages. IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES chair Robert Watson.
“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.”
Humanity has only a short time to stop 1 million species from becoming extinct, the report said. Unsurprisingly, it found overwhelming evidence that human-induced economic activities are driving the decline.
The IPBES report is the first intergovernmental report of its kind and builds on data collated in 2005. It is being compiled by 145 authors from 50 countries, over three years, with input from another 310 contributing authors. It assesses the impact on nature of economic development over the past five decades.
In summary, the report found that the species losses are “a direct result of human activity”. It said this also “constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world”.
Among other conclusions, it found:
• Diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems is declining fast. About 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, “more than ever before in human history”;
• Since 1900, average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%; and
• More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than one-third of all marine mammals are threatened; 10% of insect species are under threat.
The report said the extinction drivers include:
• Land degradation, which has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface;
• In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels;
• Plastic pollution, which has increased tenfold since 1980; and
• 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities that are dumped annually into the world’s waters.
While the summary report does not present a road map for species’ survival, it does suggest the “explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities” where nature is in better health compared to those places “managed by national or corporate institutions”.
It also singled out the important role that young people involved in the climate strike movement have been playing to alert the world to the scale and urgency of the crisis.
“There is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future”, Watson said.
The report makes a series of recommendations, including adopting sustainable practices in agriculture, marine and freshwater environments and in urban areas. The challenge, of course, is how to achieve the changes on a scale that will make a difference.
This report provides the raw data, but data on its own will not change the minds of greedy corporations and subservient politicians.
As 350.org founder Bill McKibbon told the May 9 New Yorker in a wide-ranging interview on the extinction report and climate change: “The argument about climate change was over by the early 1990s, when scientists had reached a very robust consensus.
“We’d won the argument. We were just losing the fight, because the fight was not about data and reason and evidence. It was about the thing that fights are always about: money and power.”
Scientists are unsure how many more species there are to discover: some estimate that more than 80% of the planet’s species are still unknown to us. Many are likely to become extinct before we even discover them.
How these discoveries would help us understand more about ecosystems and the natural world can only be surmised. But we do know the survival of diverse animal and plant life is essential for human progress.
If we are to tackle the extinction crisis we have to change the system that has given rise to this pending disaster: capitalism.