Last week, 150 experts from 50 countries released a major report demonstrating that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented, with up to 1 million species threatened with extinction, which is more than at any other time in human history. What is driving this global loss of biodiversity and how is it different from previous waves of extinctions experienced on Earth?
It is believed that the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history but the crucial difference is that, this time, the threat is being caused by humans.
Our actions over the past 50 years have been the cause of record losses in species. Tens to hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction over the past 10 million years. Since 1970 alone, vertebrate populations have fallen by 40 per cent for land-based species, 84 per cent for freshwater species and 35 per cent for marine species.
This is happening due to a number of human activities: accelerating land-use change such as through farming and logging, overusing our seas and ocean such as through fishing, polluting our air, soil and water systems, hunting and also – voluntarily or involuntarily – transporting invasive species across distant regions. This is happening on an unprecedented worldwide scale.
Human activities have significantly altered around three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all the ocean on the planet according to the report. From insect pollination that provides us with food, to mangrove swamps that shield us from storms, how much do humans depend on nature and how much will it impact us if it continues to degrade at the current rate?
One of the things the report highlights is the deep dependence of all humans on nature. We depend on nature to have a fulfilling life, often without realizing it, no matter where we live. We depend on nature for our physical sustenance, cultural continuity and sense of identity.
Of course, nature also regulates a number of processes that we don’t even notice that are the basis of our economies and well-being such as clean water, protection from environmental hazards, the pollination of crops and the regulation of the climate. So we cannot live life as we know it, and as we enjoy it, without nature.
In the report, we take stock of the different kinds of nature’s contributions to people, and we conclude that, with the exception of the production of food, energy and raw materials, all of the other contributions nature gives to people – about 14 out 18 kinds – are declining globally.
We have analysed a number of scenarios, and in all of them, there is a sharp decrease in nature and its capacity to regulate all of the Earth’s natural processes.
Furthermore, climate change is increasingly interacting with all of the other human-induced drivers of biodiversity loss in complex ways, so the future looks extremely grim for most people around the world, and much worse for some more than others in just the next 40 years.
This loss of biodiversity reportedly poses as serious, and urgent, a threat to humans as climate change but it has been less discussed. Why do you think this has been the case and, given increasing public concern after last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and widespread public protests this year, do you believe this could change?
Yes definitely. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has traditionally gotten much more attention but that is because the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is much younger. This is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005 to present the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services and what it means for humanity.
In contrast, the IPCC has decades of history, so we are following in their steps, inspired by them in the way we organize ourselves and, as a result, I think people are starting to listen.
We have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of public attention we received when the report was released last week. There are environmental movements that have been focused on climate change that now – only one week after the release of the report – have already announced that they will fight for nature as well as the climate because they have realized you cannot fight for one without fighting for the other.