Environment

One million animal and plant species face extinction as ecosystems deteriorate

One million animal and plant species now risk extinction as the health of ecosystems deteriorates at an unprecedented rate, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)¹ warns in a new report released today.

More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 percent being threatened with extinction.

The new report states that, of the one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction, many will disappear within decades. Such a rate of extinction has never been seen before in human history.

“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world,” said one of the report’s authors, Josef Settele from Germany.

About 50 percent of live coral reef cover has been lost since the 1870s.

The critically endangered hawksbill turtle, seen here in a coral reef in the Maldives. Photo: Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock.com.

Transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature and the current global response is insufficient, the new report states.

The authors cite the following drivers of changes in nature: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.

Today, humans extract more from the Earth and produce more waste than ever before. Globally, land-use change is the direct driver with the largest relative impact on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, while direct exploitation of fish and seafood has the largest relative impact in the oceans.

Climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species have had a lower relative impact to date, but that impact is accelerating.

There are an estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth, including 5.5 million insect species.

About 9 percent of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival without habitat restoration.

The forty-page summary of the new IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which is the most comprehensive assessment of its kind ever conducted, was approved during the 7th session of the IPBES plenary meeting that took place in Paris from April 29 to May 4. The summary was released today and the full 1,800-page report will be published later this year.

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES chairman 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.”

The global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating, the report’s authors state.

“The report 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 said.

“Through transformative change, nature can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably. This is also key to meeting most other global goals.”

Watson says that transformative change will involve fundamental, system-wide reorganisation in the technological, economic, and social arenas.

Paradigms, goals, and values will all have to be changed, Watson says. He says the member states of the IPBES plenary acknowledge that, given the nature of transformative change, opposition can be expected from those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, but such opposition could be overcome “for the broader public good”.

Compiled by 145 experts from fifty countries over the past three years, with inputs from 310 contributing authors, the new report assesses changes over the past five decades and provides a comprehensive picture of the impacts on nature of economic development. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

The IPBES report is based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources.  For the first time ever on this scale, it draws on indigenous and local knowledge and particularly addresses issues of relevance to indigenous peoples and local communities.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting safety net, but our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Sandra Díaz from Argentina.

Díaz co-chaired the assessment with Settele and Eduardo S. Brondízio, representing Brazil and the United States.

“The diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet,” she added.

Pollinator diversity and the presence of organic carbon in soil are two key indicators of nature’s contributions to people and both have declined.

The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has decreased by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900.

At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture were extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties, and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” Settele said.

The new report notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius.

Climate change is already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics and the impacts are expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.

Some key findings:

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average, these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • Since 1970, the value of agricultural crop production has risen by about 300 percent and raw timber harvesting has increased by 45 percent. About 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are now extracted globally every year. This is nearly double the quantity extracted in 1980.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980. Between 300 million and 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters. Fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean “dead zones” that total more than 245,000 square kilometres.

 

Pollution on Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Maxim Blinkov/Shutterstock.com.

The new IPBES report says there has been progress in nature conservation, but the global goals for conservation and achieving sustainability cannot be met if current trajectories are followed.

With good progress on components of only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline, the report states.

The authors state that current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80 percent of the assessed targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that relate to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land.

“To better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them,” Brondízio said.

“Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability.

“A pattern that emerges is one of global interconnectivity and ‘telecoupling’ – with resource extraction and production often occurring in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”

Since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion), rising unevenly across countries and regions.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan, which is used by more than 2.5 million people daily.
Photo: Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock.com.

The IPBES report presents a wide range of actions for sustainability and suggests pathways for achieving them across and between such sectors as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urbanism, energy, and finance.

It highlights the importance of adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.

Global financial and economic systems need to evolve, the authors say, and the world needs a global sustainable economy that has been steered away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

The IPBES’ assessment report is the first intergovernmental report of its kind. It builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 and introduces innovative ways of evaluating evidence.

Other key findings:

  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the global land surface and annual global crops worth up to US$577 billion are at risk from pollinator loss.
  • Between 100 million and 300 million people face an increased risk because of floods and hurricanes caused by the loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • In 2015, 33 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Sixty percent were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7 percent harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
  • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
  • In all of the policy scenarios explored in the report that do not include transformative change, negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond. There will be significant regional differences in the impact of the increasing changes in land use, the exploitation of organisms, and climate change.
  • Per capita Gross Domestic Product is four times higher than in 1970 and ever-more-distant consumers have shifted the environmental burden of consumption and production across regions.
  • The numbers of invasive alien species per country have risen by about 70 percent since 1970 across the 21 countries with detailed records.
  • The distributions of 47 percent of land-based flightless mammals, and almost a quarter of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by climate change.

 

At the last Asia for Animals conference, held in Kathmandu, delegates heard that there are 7,529 known amphibian species across the world and more than 2,000 of them are listed as endangered.

The Amolops formosus or “Beautiful stream frog”. Photo courtesy of Save the Frogs.

Over the past forty years, more than 250 frog species have gone extinct in the wild, and nearly one-third of all the remaining species are in danger of extinction.

Habitat destruction is the main cause of the disappearance of frogs, and climate change is altering precipitation levels, drying up ponds, streams, and cloud forests.

Humans are facilitating the spread of infectious diseases by shipping more than a hundred million amphibians around the world each year, for use as food, pets, bait, and in laboratories and zoos, with few regulations and little quarantining.

One of these diseases, chytridiomycosis, has driven stream-dwelling amphibian populations to extinction in Africa, Australia, Europe and North, Central, and South America.

The pace of agricultural expansion into intact ecosystems has varied from country to country. Losses of intact ecosystems have occurred primarily in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet.

A total 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, mostly because of cattle ranching in Latin America (about 42 million hectares) and plantations in Southeast Asia (about 7.5 million hectares, of which 80 percent is for the cultivation of palm oil).

Deforestation in Indonesia. Photo by Roni Bintang.

The results of deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture in Madagascar. Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com.

Indigenous peoples, local communities, and nature

At least a quarter of the world’s land is traditionally owned, managed, used, or occupied by indigenous peoples. This land includes about 35 percent of the area that is formally protected, and about 35 percent of all remaining terrestrial areas with very low human intervention.

Nature managed by indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure, but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands. However, 72 percent of local indicators developed and used by indigenous peoples and local communities show a deterioration of nature and this has a significant effect on local livelihoods.

The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and nature’s contributions to people are also areas in which large concentrations of indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities reside.

The IPBES report says that regional and global scenarios currently lack, and would benefit from, an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives, and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways.

The authors point to ways in which the positive contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities to sustainability can be facilitated. They cite national recognition of land tenure, the provision of access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, and the application of free, prior, and informed consent.

There is a need, the authors say, for improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from land use, and co-management arrangements with local communities.

Policy tools and options

The IPBES authors acknowledge that policy actions and societal initiatives are helping to raise awareness about the impact of consumption on nature and are protecting local environments, promoting sustainable local economies, and leading to the restoration of degraded areas.

Agriculture

Farmers spraying pesticides in a wheat field. Photo: Jinning Li/Shutterstock.com.

The new report emphasises the need to promote good agricultural and agroecological practices, such as multifunctional landscape planning and cross-sectoral integrated management.

It also points to the importance of a deeper engagement of all actors throughout the food system, including the public sector, civil society, and consumers

There needs to be more integrated landscape and watershed management and conservation of the diversity of genes, varieties, cultivars, breeds, landraces², and species, the authors say.

Approaches are required that empower consumers and producers via market transparency, improved distribution, and localisation (which revitalises local economies), along with reformed supply chains and reduced food waste.

Marine systems

Women fishing at
Morondava, Madagascar. Photo: Sunsinger/Shutterstock.com.

The IPBES report highlights the need for ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management, spatial planning, effective quotas, protected areas, and a reduction in run-off pollution into oceans.

Freshwater systems

The authors point to the need for more inclusive water governance, better integration of water resource management, and landscape planning. They also highlight the importance of increasing water storage and promoting practices to reduce soil erosion, sedimentation, and pollution run-off.

More investment in water projects with clear sustainability criteria is needed, they add, and the fragmentation of many freshwater policies needs to be addressed.

Urban areas

The IPBES report also highlights the importance of promoting nature-based solutions in urban areas, increasing access to urban services and a healthy urban environment for low-income communities, and improving access to green spaces. There needs to be sustainable production and consumption and ecological connectivity within urban spaces, particularly with native species, the authors add.

Watson says the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change are evident. These include innovative policies by many countries, local authorities and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide.

“From the young global shapers behind the #VoiceforthePlanet movement, to school strikes for climate, there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future.”

Facts and figures 

  • 75 percent of the world’s terrestrial environment has been “severely altered” by human actions. (In the case of the marine environments, it is 40 percent.)
  • More than 85 percent of wetlands that existed in 1700 had been lost by 2000. The loss of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss.
  • 3.5 percent of domesticated bird breeds became extinct by 2016.
  • 23 percent of land areas have seen a reduction in agricultural productivity because of land degradation.
  • 75 percent of global food crop types rely on animal pollination.
  • The annual value of global crop output at risk because of pollinator loss is between US$235 and US$577 billion.
  • About 11 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.
  • There was a 3 percent increase in land transformation to agriculture between 1992 and 2015, half of which was at the expense of intact tropical forests.
  • About 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by land clearing, crop production, and fertilisation, with the production of animal-based food making up 75 percent of that figure.
  • In countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the estimated level of financial support provided in 2015 to agriculture that is potentially harmful to the environment was US$100 billion.
  • More than 55 percent of the world’s ocean area is covered by industrial fishing.
  • From 1970 to 2000, there was a decrease of more than 10 percent per decade in the extent of seagrass meadows.
  • Conservation investments from 1996 to 2008 reduced the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries by an average 29 percent.
  • There was a 7 percent reduction of intact forests from 2000-2013 in developed and developing countries.
  • 290 million hectares (about 6 percent) of native forest cover was lost from 1990 to 2015 as a result of clearing and wood harvesting.
  • The increase in the area of planted forests from 1990 to 2015 was 110 million hectares.
  • Between 10 and 15 percent of global timber supplies come from illegal forestry and the percentage has reached 50 in some areas.
  • There are about 17,000 large-scale mining sites in 171 countries, mostly managed by 616 international corporations.

    Blasting for coal in In Australia’s Hunter Valley, where the already endangered regent honeyeater is being further threatened. Photo below by Jessica Bonsell.

  • There are about 6,500 offshore oil and gas ocean mining installations in 53 countries.
  • Global subsidies for fossil fuels total US$345 billion and overall costs are US$5 trillion. Coal production accounts for 52 percent of post-tax subsidies, petroleum for about 33 percent, and natural gas for about 10 percent.
  • Worldwide there are about 50,000 large dams (higher than 15 metres) and about 17 million reservoirs (larger than 0.01 hectares or 100m2).

A Tapanuli orangutan in Sumatra, Indonesia. The species’ future is endangered by plans for a hydroelectric dam that would permanently fragment its habitat and could lead to its extinction. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

  • There are more than 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food, and land worldwide.
  • About 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa.
  • 40 percent of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water.
  • 8 percent of the world’s waste water is discharged untreated into the environment.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
  • The average global temperature difference in 2017 as compared to pre-industrial levels is 1 degree Celsius.
  • The world’s sea level has risen by an average of more than 3 millimetres annually over the past two decades.
  • The sea level has risen an average of 16–21 centimetres since 1900.
  • There was a 40 percent rise in the carbon footprint of tourism, to 4.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, between 2009 and 2013.
  • 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions are from transport and food consumption related to tourism.
  • An estimated 5 percent of species are at risk of extinction from 2°C warming alone. The figure rises to 16 percent at 4.3°C warming.
  • Even with global warming of between 1.5 and 2 degrees, most of the ranges of terrestrial species are projected to shrink profoundly.

 

An open copper mining pit in Spain. Photo: Denis Zhitnik/Shutterstock.com.

The director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, said the new IPBES report reminded everyone of the obvious truth, that “the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity”.

Local, indigenous, and scientific knowledge were proving that there were solutions, Azoulay said. “So no more excuses: we must live on earth differently.”

Kai Chan, a lead author from the University of British Columbia in Canada, said at the launch of the report summary in Paris: “No previous assessment has considered at this scale the simultaneous challenge of protecting nature, maintaining water, feeding the planet, supplying energy, while mitigating climate change … This is the most exhaustive report to have ever done that.”

He added: “When have you ever seen an intergovernmental document that proposed or called for a global sustainable economy, that argued for the elimination of harmful environmental subsidies, and that noted that vested interests would need to be overcome to do that? These are quite outstanding things for an intergovernmental process to agree to.”

Eduardo S. Brondízio spoke about the severe and alarming alteration of wetlands and “tipping points” in Alaska, the Amazon, the Andes, and the Himlayas. We are only now starting to understand on a global scale the interconnections between those tipping points, he said.

Brondízio says the deterioration of nature cannot be tackled in isolation from climate change or social goals. We need, he says, to confront the root causes of impacts on nature and change the narratives that associate wasteful consumption with quality of life and status. “Economic growth is a means and not an end,” Brondízio said.

Robert Watson spoke about the “incredible economic value” of biodiversity. “The evidence in this report shows that biodiversity is not only an environmental issue but it’s an economic issue, a development, security, social, ethical, and moral issue.”

Targets, Watson said, were meaningless without actions. “We have no time to waste. The time for action is now.”

 

  1. The IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body, established by 94 member states in 2012. Its objective is to strengthen the science–policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services so as to bring about sustainable biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development. The organisation comes under the auspices of four United Nations entities: the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It is administered by UNEP.
  2. A landrace is a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and as a result of isolation from other populations of the species.

 

Headline image: a koala in a felled pine forest near Bathurst, Queensland. Photo by Louise O’Brien.