Species extinction is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, warns IPBES report
May 22, 2019
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – The rate of global animal and plant species extinction is faster than ever before and is accelerating at an unprecedented level. The average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost a third of reef-forming corals and over a third of marine mammals are currently threatened.
Scientists from 50 countries, including Brazil, who have been working for three years on the first global assessment report of the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warn that the losses are directly due to human activity and constitute a grave threat to human well-being in all parts of the world.
A summary of the report for policymakers was released on May 6, 2019, in Paris, France, after being approved by 132 countries at the seventh plenary session of the IPBES, often called the “IPCC for biodiversity”. The session took place from April 29-May 4 in Paris.
“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,” said IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson.
Compiled by 145 experts with input from 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services such as food and the water supply in the last five decades; the report is based on a systematic review of some 15,000 scientific and government sources as well as indigenous and local community knowledge.
“This is the first intergovernmental report to focus not just on biodiversity but also on its interactions with paths to economic development and factors that affect nature, such as climate change,” Eduardo Sonnewend Brondizio, a professor at Indiana University in the US, told Agência FAPESP.
“Never before has so much data from different areas in the natural and social sciences been compiled to produce a detailed assessment of the state of the environment on a global scale and from an integrated perspective of interaction with society.”
Brondizio, who was born in Brazil and has lived in the US for more than 20 years, was one of the three co-chairs of the report. He is also one of the principal investigators for a project supported by FAPESP in partnership with the Belmont Forum, an international consortium comprising the world’s funders of research on environmental change.
Other Brazilians among the report’s authors were Ana Paula Aguiar, affiliated with the National Space Research Institute (INPE); Bernardo Baeta Neves Strassburg, International Institute for Sustainability (IIS); Cristina Adams, University of São Paulo (USP); Gabriel Henrique Lui, Ministry for the Environment; Maria Manuela Ligeti Carneiro da Cunha, USP; Pedro Henrique Santin Brancalion, USP; and Rafael Dias Loyola, Federal University of Goiás (UFG).
“The Brazilian authors’ contributions were outstanding because they all succeeded in bringing an integrated social and ecological perspective into the report,” Brondizio said. “They put their respective specialties, such as ecology, public policy or environmental scenarios, into an interdisciplinary context.”
Increasingly frayed web
According to German biologist Josef Settele, another co-chair of the report, ecosystems, species, wild populations, and local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. As a result, the web of life on Earth is becoming smaller and increasingly frayed.
The report states that human actions have already driven at least 680 vertebrate species to extinction since 1500, and more than 9% of the domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016. Moreover, approximately 1 million animal and plant species are currently estimated to face extinction.
The key drivers of this decline in biodiversity, in descending order, are changes in land and sea use, the direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.
The report notes that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, increasing average global temperatures by at least 0.7 °C. Climate change is already impacting nature, ranging from ecosystem to genetic level changes, and its impact is set to increase in the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.
“The summary shows that the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services essential to the quality of life is even more critical than that of global warming,” said Carlos Joly, Full Professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and coordinator of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP).
Alongside Mark Lonsdale, who also headed a key ecosystem unit of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Joly was an inaugural co-chair of IPBES’s multidisciplinary expert panel (MEP). Joly was one of the creators of the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES), which was inspired by IPBES.
The report also highlights the findings that three-quarters of the land-based environment and two-thirds of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. However, on average, these trends have been less severe or have been avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
More than one-third of the world’s land surface and nearly three-quarters of its freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. The value of crop production has increased by approximately 300% since 1970, raw timber harvests have risen by 45%, and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year, having nearly doubled since 1980.
According to the report, land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface; up to US $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss, and 100-300 million people face an increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of the loss of coastal habitats and protection.
Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, and 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.
The report also stated that fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean “dead zones” totaling more than 245,000 km2, a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
“The report shows that richer or more privileged people have become accustomed to ignoring environmental problems because they don’t live with the impacts on a day-to-day basis. The poor or underprivileged are the people who are suffering the impacts on their standard of living, owing to pollution, deforestation and mining operations in places far from the eyes of the rest of the world,” Brondizio said.
According to the report, the negative trends in nature will continue through 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored by its authors; the exceptions are those that include transformative change owing to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, the exploitation of organisms, and climate change, although significant differences exist between regions.
The report also found that despite progress to conserve nature, global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by the current trajectories, and the goals for 2030 and beyond can be achieved only through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological sectors.
The report recommends several ways to bring about such changes, such as implementing integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the tradeoffs among food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.
“We haven’t yet reached the point of no return in biodiversity loss and degradation of the ecosystem services essential to the quality of life. If we decide now to work together in a coordinated and cooperative manner to bring about integrated, inclusive transformative changes based on the best science available, we can reverse or slow down the degradation,” Joly said. “That necessarily means meeting the Paris Agreement targets, as global warming is already one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem service degradation.”
The report argues that a key element of future policies that are more sustainable is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a sustainable global economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.
“The report shows we must change the narrative that economic development is an end in itself and that the price paid to achieve it in terms of environmental degradation and social inequality is unavoidable and justifiable,” Brondizio said.
More information: www.ipbes.net.
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