The World Wide Fund for Nature has recently published its 2020 Living Planet Report, warning that biodiversity which is fundamental to human life on earth, is being destroyed by us at an unprecedented rate in history.
Since the industrial revolution, human activities have increasingly destroyed and degraded forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other important ecosystems, threatening human well-being. Some 75 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has already been significantly altered, most of the oceans are polluted, and more than 85 percent of the area of wetlands has been lost.
The most important direct driver of biodiversity loss in terrestrial systems in the last several decades has been a land-use change, primarily the conversion of pristine native habitats into agricultural systems; while much of the oceans have been overfished. Globally, climate change has not been the most important driver of the loss of biodiversity to date, yet in the coming decades it is projected to become as, or more, important than the other drivers.
The loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental issue but a development, economic, global, ethical, and moral one. It is also a self-preservation issue. Biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fiber, water, energy, medicines, and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control, and storm surges. In addition, nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes to non-material levels – inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences, and shaping our identities – that are central in quality of life and cultural integrity.
Species driven towards extinction at an accelerating rate
The Living Planet Index (LPI) now tracks the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians around the world. Using the data from 20,811 populations of 4,392 species, the 2020 global LPI shows an average 68 percent decline in monitored populations between 1970 and 2016. The percentage change in the index doesn’t represent the number of individual animals lost but reflects the average proportional change in animal population sizes tracked over 46 years.
The 94 percent decline in the LPI for the tropical sub-regions of the Americas is the most striking result observed in any region.
Between 2000 and 2018 the Species Habitat Index (SHI) has fallen by 2 percent, indicating a strong and general downward trend in habitat available to species. For select regions and species, the SHI decrease is much steeper, with double-digit percentage losses suggesting extensive contractions in total population sizes and thus the ecological roles provided by species.
The Red List Index (RLI), based on data from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, shows trends in survival probability (the inverse of extinction risk) over time. A Red List Index value of 1.0 equates to all species within a group qualifying as Least Concern (i.e. not expected to become extinct in the near future). An index value of 0 equates to all species having gone Extinct. A constant value over time indicates that the overall extinction risk for the group is unchanged. If the rate of biodiversity loss were reducing, the index would show an upward trend. A decline in the index means that species are being driven towards extinction at an accelerating rate.
90% of global wetlands lost since 1700
Freshwater biodiversity is declining far faster than that in our oceans or forests. Based on available data, almost 90 percent of global wetlands have been lost since 1700; and global mapping has recently revealed the extent to which humans have altered millions of kilometers of rivers.
These changes have had a profound impact on freshwater biodiversity with population trends for monitored freshwater species falling steeply. The 3,741 monitored populations – representing 944 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fishes – in the Freshwater Living Planet Index have declined by an average of 84 percent, equivalent to 4 percent per year since 1970.
Most of the declines are seen in freshwater amphibians, reptiles, and fishes; and they’re recorded across all regions, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean.
Plant diversity in serious decline
Plant extinction risk is comparable to that of mammals and higher than for birds. The number of documented plant extinctions is twice as many as for mammals, birds, and amphibians combined. In addition, an assessment of a sample of thousands of species representing the taxonomic and geographic breadth of global plant diversity showed that one in five (22%) are threatened with extinction, most of them in the tropics.
Oceans in ‘hot water’
Overfishing, pollution, and coastal development, among other pressures, have impacted the entire ocean, from shallow waters to the deep sea, and climate change will continue to cause a growing spectrum of effects across marine ecosystems.
Climate change pushing one-fifth of wild species to extinction
Just 30 years ago, climate change impacts on species were extremely rare, but today they are commonplace. Some species are relatively buffered from changes (e.g. deep-sea fishes), but others (e.g. Arctic and tundra species) already face enormous climate change pressures.
Recent climate change impacts on flying foxes and the Bramble Cay melomys show how quickly climate change can lead to drastic population declines, and warn of unseen damage to less conspicuous species.
Healthy planet, healthy people
The past century has seen extraordinary gains in human health and well-being. Child mortality among under-5s has halved since 1990, the share of the world’s population living on less than $1.90 a day fell by two-thirds over the same period, and life expectancy at birth is around 15 years higher today than it was 50 years ago. This is rightly celebrated, but it has been achieved alongside the exploitation and alteration of the world’s natural systems, which threatens to undo these successes.
The links between biodiversity and health are diverse, from traditional medicines and pharmaceuticals derived from plants to water filtration by wetlands,
Humanity overspends its biological budget every year
In the last 50 years, our world has been transformed by an explosion in global trade, consumption, and human population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanization, changing how we live unrecognizably. Yet this has come at a huge cost to nature and the stability of the Earth’s operating systems that sustain us.
Since 1970, our Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s rate of regeneration. This overshoot erodes the planet’s health and, with it, humanity’s prospects. Both human demand and natural resources are unevenly distributed across the Earth. The pattern of human consumption of these resources differs from resource availability since resources are not consumed at the point of extraction. The Ecological Footprint per person, across countries, provides insights into countries’ resource performance, risks, and opportunities.
Varying levels of Ecological Footprint are due to different lifestyles and consumption patterns, including the quantity of food, goods, and services residents consume, the natural resources they use, and the carbon dioxide emitted to provide these goods and services.
Protecting environment must be brought into sharp focus
COVID-19 is nature sending us a message. In fact, it reads like an SOS signal for the human enterprise, bringing into sharp focus the need to live within the planet’s ‘safe operating space’. The environmental, health and economic consequences of failing to do so are disastrous. Now more than ever before, technological advances allow us to listen to such messages and better understand the natural world.
We can estimate the value of ‘natural capital’ – the planet’s stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, like plants, soils, and minerals – alongside values of produced and human capital – for example, roads and skills – which together form a measure of a country’s true wealth.
Data from the United Nations Environment Program shows that, per person, our global stock of natural capital has declined nearly 40 percent since the early 1990s, while produced capital has doubled and human capital has increased by 13 percent.
For sustainable economic growth, helping to steer our leaders towards making better decisions that deliver us, and future generations, the healthier, greener, happier lives that more and more of us say we want. From now on, protecting and enhancing our environment must be at the heart of how we achieve economic prosperity.