In every corner of the world, from the lofty peaks of the Andes to the humid peat bogs of the Bornean rainforest, the biodiversity on our planet is being severely degraded to such an extent that if we don’t act now, our very future is in jeopardy.
This is the stark warning about how we are causing a dramatic and worrying decline in nature, and in turn its capacity to support us, from a new series of major reports released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which is currently meeting in Medellin, Colombia.
Compiled by close to 600 scientists and taking over three years to complete, it provides the most comprehensive assessment of the biodiversity on our planet carried out for the last 13 years. And needless to say, the outlook is not great.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives,” said Sir Robert Watson, the chair of the IPBES. “Nothing could be further from the truth – they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities, and enjoyment of life.
“The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature – or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead.”
The report is made up of four parts – covering Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia – aiming to give the most thorough analysis of the state of nature on every continent, apart from Antarctica. A fifth report will be released later in the week that focuses solely on the global state of soil, looking into how destructive farming practices, pollution, mining, and deforestation are draining the soil of nutrients and limiting our ability to feed ourselves.
This isn’t just an esoteric issue. The destruction of biodiversity threatens our global development goals, as many of the world’s poorest people and nations rely so heavily on a healthy, sustainable environment. The time for action was yesterday and the day before yesterday, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. We know enough to manage biodiversity and the climate better than we are now, and need to promote sustainable agriculture, forestry, and the production and consumption of goods.
Pretty much everything we do relies on the natural world. From the resources we consume in vast quantities to the water that flows from our taps and the food we put on our plates.
In the Americas alone, for example, the economic value of nature and the services it provides comes in at $24.3 trillion, which is the same as the entire region's GPD. And yet we are taking so much out that nature simply cannot keep up. At the current rate, it is estimated that 65 percent of these ecosystem services are now in decline, while the diversity of animals and plants has declined by 31 percent since the arrival of Europeans and will fall by a further 10 percent by mid-century is nothing is done. That is huge.
You’ll probably be unsurprised to hear that climate change is one of the biggest threats involved. By 2050, in the Americas it is expected to be the biggest factor in the decline of biodiversity, while in Africa climate change will likely lead to the extinction of half of all mammal and bird species by the end of the century. In Asia, is it likely to harm 90 percent of all coral reefs.
The spread of agriculture and the overexploitation of land is also a major problem. In Asia and the Pacific, it is expected that if current fishing practices continue, there will be no exploitable fisheries left in the region by 2048, while 500,000 square kilometers (190,000 square miles) of African land is thought to have been lost to degradation, a number only expected to rise as the continent's population will likely double by 2050.
Yet despite all of this doom and gloom, it is important to take stock and realize that all is not lost. It is not too late, and we can still halt and even reverse the damaging declines that we are seeing. Over the past 25 years, the number of protected areas in Asia has increased by 14 percent in the ocean and 0.3 percent on land, including a quite incredible increase in forests of 2.5 percent.
This is a good start, but it is not enough. The report recommends listening to and learning from indigenous groups who have been living on and sustainably managing the forests for millennia. We need to have solid protection for areas rather than just creating “paper parks”, which exist on paper but not on the ground. And we need to find better solutions for encouraging nature to live in human-dominated landscapes.
Not only that, but there are actions that people at home can take too. While you don’t need to go full vegetarian, changing your diet by cutting down on the meat you eat and by switching to chicken and upping the amount of vegetables will have a significant impact on the environment. This coupled with taking more public transport and using your car less, as well as saving energy and water in the home all adds up.
It is possible to protect and preserve plant biodiversity and increase economic development and growth. But we need to act now.