Why human activity ‘threatens one million species with extinction’

UN-sponsored report warns relentless pursuit of economic growth means ‘mass extinction event’ already underway

(Image credit: David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images)

Human activity threatens up to one million animal and plant species with extinction, a major new report sponsored by the UN has found.

Three years in the making, the 1,800-page study compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) cost more than £1.8million and draws on 15,000 reference materials.

The brief 40-page “summary for policymakers”, published in Paris on Monday, “is perhaps the most powerful indictment of how humans have treated their only home”, says the BBC.

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CNN says the “landmark report” paints “a bleak picture of a planet ravaged by an ever-growing human population, whose insatiable consumption is destroying the natural world”.

Across land, sea and air, it reveals how humans’ relentless pursuit of economic growth driven by the need for ever more food and energy, twinned with the impact of climate change, is ravaging the very ecosystems that support our societies.

Experts from 50 countries who met in the French capital last week have warned a “mass extinction event” – similar to the one which wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago but precipitated by human activities – is already underway.

Around 25% of all animals and plants are now at risk, with more than a million species now facing extinction within decades, a rate of destruction tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years.

Meanwhile the productivity of the land surface of the Earth has been reduced by 23%, as increased demands for food from a growing global human population has led to the replacement of natural wilderness and forests with intensive farming. At sea, only 3% of the world's oceans were described as free from human pressure in 2014, while 33% of fish stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015.

The conversion of forests and grasslands into farms was identified as the biggest threat to wildlife, followed by excessive exploitation of animals and plants by overfishing, hunting and logging.

Climate change, despite gaining so much attention, is only the third biggest threat, with pollution and the spread of invasive species ranked fourth and fifth.

At the same time, the amount of waste we produce each year has skyrocketed. Plastic pollution has increased ten-fold since 1980.

Only a wide-ranging transformation of the global economic and financial system could pull ecosystems that are vital to the future of human communities worldwide back from the brink of collapse, the report concluded.

Endorsed by 130 countries including the US, Russia and China “the study is a cornerstone of an emerging body of research that suggests the world may need to embrace a new ‘post-growth’ form of economics if it is to avert the existential risks posed by the mutually-reinforcing consequences of pollution, habitat destruction and carbon emissions”, says Reuters.

The BBC says one big idea is to move “away from GDP as a key measure of economic wealth and instead adopt more holistic approaches that would capture quality of life and long-term effects”.

This would involve a fundamental shift away from our traditional notion of a good quality of life which has involved increasing material consumption on every level.

Calling for urgent changes in government policies to limit environmental damage and climate change, the report says individuals can also do their bit to help endangered species.

It recommends that families sponsor beekeepers near their homes, for a cost of less than £100 a year. “Bee populations are falling but they are essential to pollinate crops and food supplies depend on them” says The Daily Telegraph.

Loss of bees and other pollinators “presents a growing global threat to food production and could result in a $577 billion annual decline in crop output”, The Times says.

Eating organic food is another way to preserve fast shrinking insect populations, while eating less meat will also help to preserve forests, experts say, pointing to the Amazon where some 63% of deforestation stems from livestock farming.

“The report tells us is not too late to make a difference,” said environmental scientist and chair of the IPBES, Robert Watson, “but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he added.

“By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” he said.

His remarks echo a similarly blunt assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said last year that profound economic and social changes would be needed to curb greenhouse gases quickly enough to avert the most devastating consequences of a warming world.

“In the same way that the IPCC report put the climate crisis on the political agenda, the authors of the IPBES report hope that it will thrust nature loss into the global spotlight” says CNN.

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