A three-year UN-backed study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform On Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has grim implications for the future of humanity.
Nature is in freefall and the planet’s support systems are so stretched that we face widespread species extinctions and mass human migration unless urgent action is taken. That’s the warning hundreds of scientists are preparing to give, and it’s stark.
The last year has seen a slew of brutal and terrifying warnings about the threat climate change poses to life. Far less talked about but just as dangerous, if not more so, is the rapid decline of the natural world. The felling of forests, the over-exploitation of seas and soils, and the pollution of air and water are together driving the living world to the brink, according to a huge three-year, U.N.-backed landmark study to be published in May.
The study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform On Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), expected to run to over 8,000 pages, is being compiled by more than 500 experts in 50 countries. It is the greatest attempt yet to assess the state of life on Earth and will show how tens of thousands of species are at high risk of extinction, how countries are using nature at a rate that far exceeds its ability to renew itself, and how nature’s ability to contribute food and fresh water to a growing human population is being compromised in every region on earth.
Nature underpins all economies with the “free” services it provides in the form of clean water, air and the pollination of all major human food crops by bees and insects. In the Americas, this is said to total more than $24 trillion a year. The pollination of crops globally by bees and other animals alone is worth up to $577 billion.
The final report will be handed to world leaders not just to help politicians, businesses and the public become more aware of the trends shaping life on Earth, but also to show them how to better protect nature.
“High-level political attention on the environment has been focused largely on climate change because energy policy is central to economic growth. But biodiversity is just as important for the future of earth as climate change,” said Sir Robert Watson, overall chair of the study, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
“We are at a crossroads. The historic and current degradation and destruction of nature undermine human well-being for current and countless future generations,” added the British-born atmospheric scientist who has led programs at NASA and was a science adviser in the Clinton administration. “Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment.”
Around the world, land is being deforested, cleared and destroyed with catastrophic implications for wildlife and people. Forests are being felled across Malaysia, Indonesia and West Africa to give the world the palm oil we need for snacks and cosmetics. Huge swaths of Brazilian rainforest are being cleared to make way for soy plantations and cattle farms, and to feed the timber industry, a situation likely to accelerate under new leader Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist.
Industrial farming is to blame for much of the loss of nature, said Mark Rounsevell, professor of land use change at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, who co-chaired the European section of the IPBES study. “The food system is the root of the problem. The cost of ecological degradation is not considered in the price we pay for food, yet we are still subsidizing fisheries and agriculture.”
This destruction wrought by farming threatens the foundations of our food system. A February report from the U.N. warned that the loss of soil, plants, trees and pollinators such as birds, bats and bees undermines the world’s ability to produce food.
An obsession with economic growth as well as spiraling human populations is also driving this destruction, particularly in the Americas where GDP is expected to nearly double by 2050 and the population is expected to increase 20 percent to 1.2 billion over the same period.
Nature is likely to be hit particularly hard over the next 30 years, said Jake Rice, chief scientist emeritus at the Canadian government’s department of oceans and fisheries, who co-chaired the Americas study. High consumption and destructive farming will further degrade land and marine ecosystems, he added, although the pace of destruction is diminishing because so much has already gone.
“The great transformation has already taken place in North America but the remote parts of South and Central America remain under threat. A new wave of destruction is transforming the Amazon and Pampas regions [of Latin America],” said Rice.
All of this comes at a huge cost and has implications for the systems that prop up life on this planet, throwing into doubt the ability of humans to survive.
“The loss of trees, grasslands and wetlands is costing the equivalent of about 10 percent of the world’s annual gross product, driving species extinctions, intensifying climate change and pushing the planet toward a sixth mass species extinction,” says the report.
Future generations will likely experience far less wildlife, said Luthando Dziba, head of conservation services at South African National Parks, who co-chaired the section of the IPBES report that focuses on Africa.
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