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Nature's Dangerous Decline – extinction rates set to accelerate

05/06/2019, JRC

A global social and ecological emergency has been declared at today's launch of the IPBES Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005.
This landmark report calls for transformative change to halt the unprecedented and accelerating rate of species extinction. ©European Union, by Elisabetta Canuti zoom

Prepared by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the Global Assessment highlights the shocking biodiversity losses suffered over the past 50 years, warns of a bleak outlook for tens of thousands of species, and highlights the threat to humans if the devastation of nature, ecosystems and its services, continues.

The most comprehensive assessment to date on the state of nature and humanity's place in it – the report warns that the destruction of nature threatens humanity at least as much as human-induced climate change.

It has been three years in development, and draws on nearly 15 000 references, including scientific papers and government information. It is also the first global assessment ever to systematically examine and include indigenous and local knowledge, issues and priorities.

Prepared by 145 leading international experts in natural and social sciences from 50 countries, with additional contributions from a further 310 experts, the Global Assessment will inform better policies and actions in the coming decade.

"The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being. Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge of decades to come. Policies, efforts and actions - at every level - will only succeed, however, when based on the best knowledge and evidence. This is what the IPBES Global Assessment provides."

                                                                                                       - Sir Robert Watson, IPBES Chair.

Main messages of the report

The detailed 'Summary for Policy Makers', launched at UNESCO's world headquarters in Paris today, was meticulously reviewed line by line and finally endorsed at last week's IPBES-7. It highlights the key messages, findings and options of the Global Assessment. The key messages are grouped under the following four main findings:

  1. Nature and its vital contributions to people, which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide.
  2. Direct and indirect drivers of change have accelerated during the past 50 years.
  3. Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.
  4. Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.

Some of the alarming issues detailed in the report:

  • The current dramatic rate of extinction is likely to accelerate rapidly and wipe out up to a million of Earth’s estimated eight million species, many within decades.
  • Over 90% of major marine fish stocks are in decline or overexploited.
  • Humanity dumps up to 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, toxic sludge and other waste into oceans and rivers each year.
  • Since 1990, 2.9 million hectares of forests have been lost.
  • Agriculture and food consumption are especially destructive, accounting for a third of land, 75% percent of freshwater use and a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Soil degradation has been exacerbated by increased use of fertilisers, which have risen four-fold in just 13 years in Asia, and doubled worldwide since 1990.
  • Fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 'dead zones'
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface
  • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980

The report lists the five direct drivers of nature’s degradation, ranked in order of global impact, as

  1. Changes in land and sea use
  2. Direct exploitation of organisms
  3. Climate change
  4. Pollution
  5. Invasive alien species

Population growth, consumer demand, technological innovation and issues of governance, accountability, conflicts and epidemics are listed as major indirect causes.

The report finds that global sustainability goals cannot be achieved unless radical transformative changes are made across all sectors. It is already likely that most of the Aichi Biodiversity targets will miss their 2020 deadline, and the current negative biodiversity trends will undermine progress towards most of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Thankfully, there is still hope. The report proposes some solutions that could help restore nature, including local food production, reduced meat consumption, fewer chemical inputs, greater use of renewable energy, more sustainable fishing, and a dramatic reduction in tropical deforestation.

Extensive review process

To ensure the highest-possible levels of accuracy, credibility and policy-relevance, the IPBES Global Assessment has been extensively reviewed, twice, through an open and transparent process, by hundreds of external experts, including government and business leaders, civil society groups, indigenous peoples and communities.

The JRC was part of the EU delegation that attended at last week's session of the IPBES Plenary (IPBES-7) at which the report was discussed, finalised and approved line by line. Based on its scientific expertise in the areas of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the JRC contributed to the EU's comments on the background paper and the Summary for Policy Makers.

While impressed with the functioning of the Plenary, Ole Ostermann, the JRC scientist on the EU delegation, lamented the lack of urgency in the final wording of the messages of the report:  

"In my view, such international platform meetings are a lesson in humility: while we scientists can relatively easily reach agreement on the topics discussed and the urgent need for action, this forum also involves decision-makers, who have their national sensitivities and want the messages to fit their world views, and try to shape them according to own development policies or economic power aspects, and even personal fulfilment.

"As UN rules dictate that there must be consensus in the final wording, the result often reads as being frustratingly weak. However, I believe the main messages are clear – humanity needs to act now and act fast if we are to preserve our planet."

Further information