One million species at risk because of mankind’s transformation of the natural world, says a key United Nations report.

“In total, three quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by mankind”

A United Nations report has concluded that humans are changing the natural landscapes of the Earth so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. This catastrophic transformation of the world’s biodiversity is such a danger to ecosystems that the very survival of people all over the world is under threat.

Compiled by more than 450 international experts and based on over 15,000 academic studies, the full 1,500-page report will be published later this year, but a summary of its conclusions, approved by 134 countries, was recently published in Paris. Whatever your location, occupation or background, those conclusions make grim reading.

Decline and fall

The facts are terrifying: in the course of human history there’s been an 82% decline in the global biomass of wild mammals and natural ecosystems have declined by 47% – 20% of which has happened in the past century. With a global population of seven billion to feed, over a third of the world’s land surface and nearly three-quarters of available freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production. Grazing areas for cattle account for about 25% of the world’s ice-free land and more than 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In total, three-quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by mankind.

Given that a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that nature provides $24 trillion of non-monetised benefits to humans each year, these figures are shameful.

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES. “We have lost time. We must act now.”

Impact of deforestation

The effects of the decimation of the natural world are compounded by carbon emissions, which continue to rise. Just a week before this report was released, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed the 415 parts per million mark for the first time. The paper warns that even if global heating can be kept within the Paris agreement target of 1.5C-2C, the ranges of most species will shrink profoundly.

Alongside the burning of fossil fuels, one of the reasons for the increase in atmospheric carbon is the widespread deforestation that’s happening across the world. From 2000-2013, the area of intact forest fell by 7%, an area bigger than France and the UK combined. In 2018 alone, more than 3.6m hectares of pristine tropical forest was lost, along with the vital range of plant and animal life it held. Not only does deforestation irreparably harm the world’s biodiversity, but it takes away the planet’s ability to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” said Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.”

A way ahead

But while these facts are certainly bleak, there are some areas of hope. The actions of some governments and environmental organisations have prevented the extinction of a number of animal species, while more than 15% of the world’s land and 7% of its oceans have been protected by the creation of nature reserves and wilderness areas.

One organisation that’s been instrumental in protecting a vast amount of threatened habitat is World Land Trust, who fund the creation of reserves to provide permanent protection for habitats and wildlife. Part of that vital funding comes from the Carbon Balanced Paper scheme, which encourages companies to use papers and printers that have had their carbon impact balanced by World Land Trust. Not only are the carbon emissions of these companies reduced, but they raise funds to help World Land Trust preserve the world’s most endangered habitats.

The UN report should make everyone – governments, companies, individuals – sit up and take notice of the danger the world is currently in, and consider what more they can do to prevent this catastrophe from getting any worse. No one says it will be easy, but the stakes are so high that doing nothing is just not an option.

For more information on Carbon Balanced Paper, email [email protected]

For more information on World Land Trust, go to www.worldlandtrust.org

Article written by Sam Upton
Featured Image credit: World Land Trust