UN warns a million species threatened with extinction

The United Nations has warned that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with species extinctions accelerating and “grave impacts on people around the world now likely”.


A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. It seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development and its impact on nature. 

IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said: “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

He said it was not too late to make a difference through “transformative change” that would allow nature to be conserved, restored and used sustainably. Such change would involve “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”, and could be expected to meet opposition from what Sir Robert called “those with interests vested in the status quo”.

The report found that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction - many within decades - and that the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. 

More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals were threatened, while the position for insects was unclear but 10% were at risk.

Report authors ranked the five direct drivers of change in nature, which in descending order were: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species.
Despite progress to conserve nature, the report found that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories.

Goals for 2030 and beyond could only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors, while current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems would undermine progress towards 35 out of 44 assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Other key findings included:

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production
  • In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.

Biodiversity loss:

  • 75% of the terrestrial environment severely altered to date by human actions 
  • 47% reduction in global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition against their estimated natural baselines, with many continuing to decline by at least 4% per decade
  • Around 60bn tons of renewable and non-renewable resources extracted globally each year, up nearly 100% since 1980;
  • Some 85% of wetlands present in 1700 were lost by 2000


Image credit | iStock



Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist

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