Destruction of nature as dangerous as climate change, scientists warn
Human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding the world’s capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people, according to the most comprehensive biodiversity study in more than a decade.
Such is the rate of decline that the risks posed by biodiversity loss should be considered on the same scale as those of climate change, noted the authors of the UN-backed report, which was released in Medellin, Colombia on Friday.
Among the standout findings are that exploitable fisheries in the world’s most populous region – the Asia-Pacific – are on course to decline to zero by 2048; that freshwater availability in the Americas has halved since the 1950s and that 42% of land species in Europe have declined in the past decade.
Underscoring the grim trends, this report was released in the week that the decimation of French bird populations was revealed, as well as the death of the last male northern white rhinoceros, leaving the species only two females from extinction.
Divided into four regional reports, the study of studies has been written by more than 550 experts from over 100 countries and taken three years to complete. Approved by the governments of 129 members nations, the IPBES reports aim to provide a knowledge base for global action on biodiversity in much the same way that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is used by policymakers to set carbon emission targets.
Although poaching often grabs the headlines for the demise of the rhino and other animals, worldwide the biggest threats to nature are from habitat loss, invasive species, chemicals and climate change.
Conversion of forests to croplands and wetlands to shrimp farms has fed a human population that has more than doubled since the 1960s, but at a devastating cost to other species – such as pollinating insects and oxygen-producing plants – on which our climate, economy and well-being depend.
In the Americas, more than 95% of high-grass prairies have been transformed into farms, along with 72% of dry forests and 88% of the Atlantic forests, notes the report. The Amazon rainforest is still mostly intact, but it is rapidly diminishing and degrading along with an even faster disappearing cerrado (tropical savannah). Between 2003 to 2013, the area under cultivation in Brazil’s northeast agricultural frontier more than doubled to 2.5m hectares, according to the report.
“The world has lost over 130m hectares of rainforests since 1990 and we lose dozens of species every day, pushing the Earth’s ecological system to its limit,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme. “Biodiversity and the ecosystem services it supports are not only the foundation for our life on Earth, but critical to the livelihoods and well-being of people everywhere.”
The rate of decline is moreover accelerating. In the Americas – which has about 40% of the world’s remaining biodiversity – the regional population is gobbling up resources at twice the rate of the global average. Despite having 13% of the people on the planet, it is using a quarter of the resources, said Jake Rice, a co-chair of the Americas assessment.
Since the start of colonisation by Europeans 500 years ago, he said 30% of biodiversity has been lost in the region. This will rise to 40% in the next 10 years unless policies and behaviours are transformed.
The authors urged an end to subsidies for agriculture and energy that are encouraging unsustainable production. The European Union’s support for fishing was among those cited for criticism.
A dead Bodó fish in front of stranded floating houses on the bed of Negro River, a major tributary of the Amazon River, during a drought in 2015.