The United Nations (UN) released the much-anticipated IPBES Global Assessment on Monday, exposing the dire state of global biodiversity in 2019.
Close to a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within the coming decades unless we see "transformative change", the report's authors warn. And human activity is almost entirely to blame.
The findings echo suggestions of the sixth mass extinction, which some say we are already witnessing. Unlike past extinctions, triggered by extraordinary circumstances, whether volcanic climate change or extraterrestrial objects, this is a disaster directed by us.
The key "drivers" of extinction listed in the report are, in descending order:
1. Changes in land and sea use
2. Direct exploitation of organisms
3. Climate change
5. Invasive alien species
However, the assessment also highlights the fact that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, causing average global temperatures to rise by 0.7°C or more. This human-provoked climate change may eclipse the impact of changes in land and sea use, the report authors warn.
"The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture," IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson said in a statement.
"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 this report, the average abundance of native species in most large land-based environments has dropped by 20 percent or more since 1900. It also states that over 680 vertebrate species have gone extinct since the 1500s, while more than 9 percent of animals bred for food and agriculture had died out by 2016.
Over a third of marine mammals and a little under 33 percent of reef-forming corals are at risk of extinction, it continues. It (tentatively) estimates that some 10 percent of insect species – which make up 5.5 million of the world's 8 million plant and animal species – are vulnerable. While the situation for amphibians is even more desperate. More than 40 percent of species are threatened with extinction.
The report concludes that without intense efforts to reduce biodiversity loss, extinction rates will continue to accelerate from what is already "at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years".
But it is not all doom and gloom. While it is a big challenge – one that current targets are not set to meet – it is possible to reverse this trend, the report authors say.
"The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global," Watson added.
"Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values."
The team behind the report hopes that the assessment (three years in the making) will make people sit up and listen. The project involved the work of more than 400 experts from over 50 countries, and studied changes that have taken place over the last 50 years.
"Following the adoption of this historic report, no one will be able to claim that they did not know," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
"We can no longer continue to destroy the diversity of life. This is our responsibility towards future generations."