With Environment in Decline, UN Calls for Transformative Change

The world’s biodiversity is declining rapidly as approximately 1 million species are under threat of extinction, finds a recent UN report. The only solution, it suggests, is “transformative change” in the economy, politics, and technology.

The report comes from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international body of experts whose past projects have covered topics ranging from regional biodiversity to assessments on land degradation and pollinators. Their newest report, the “2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,” is of unprecedented scale. Three years and USD 2.4 million in the making, the report features contributions and participation from 400 world experts, draws on nearly 15,000 references, and is the first of its kind to use indigenous knowledge at such a scale.

The central finding is that, “Nature and its vital contributions to people… are deteriorating worldwide.” A summary for policymakers, released in early May, explains that along numerous different measures biodiversity is in rapid decline worldwide. Approximately 25 percent of known animals and plants, as well as ten percent of insect species, are threatened worldwide. The report calculates that this means nearly 1 million species worldwide face extinction in the near future, many within a few decades. In addition to the threats faced by individual species, the report has also found that the Earth itself is in some danger – nature has been “significantly altered” by human activity worldwide, with most changes suggesting the global environment is in “rapid decline.” Sixty-six percent of ocean area has been negatively impacted, and over 85 percent of wetlands, crucial for mitigating extreme climate events, have been lost.

Such changes threaten a broad range of human activity. More than 75 percent of food crops worldwide rely on animal pollination, a worrying figure considering that a 2016 IPBES report found that 40 percent of pollinators were facing extinction. More directly, biodiversity loss among domesticated plants and animals means that our food sources are growing more vulnerable to pests and pathogens. This is not just a hypothetical threat either –the vulnerability of the Gros Michel banana to Panama disease, for example, collapsed the banana trade in the 1950s.

The report finds a number of drivers to be behind this dangerous deterioration, with expanding land-use and growing climate change leading them. Land is usually altered for use in agriculture, logging, and urbanisation, all of which have shown upwards trends in recent years. Crop production and grazing currently use around 37 percent of ice-free land worldwide, a number which promises only to increase in the near future as the global population grows. Booming urbanisation and infrastructural expansions have heavy environmental and social costs, including habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss.

The effects of climate change on biodiversity are visible “from genes to ecosystems.” In concurrence with earlier studies, IPBES reports that many species are migrating away from their usual ecosystems to escape the effects of climate change. The disruptions caused by this exacerbate the problem of invasive alien species, which threaten local ecosystems. On the genetic level, the report notes that climate change is causing “evolution so rapid that it is detectable within only a few years,” making planning preservation even more difficult. Beyond its direct effects, however, climate change is also a concern in how it can exacerbate all other drivers, further adding a secondary danger.

What is to be done, then? Though similar reports and studies in the past have suggested global solutions such as reducing meat consumption, the Global Assessment explicitly calls for “transformative change” as the only way to stop and reverse our detrimental impact on the world. Out of a number of future scenarios examined by IPBES, which include rapid growth in the global economy and a stand-off by regional powers, only the case where “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation” was enacted saw biodiversity sufficiently preserved. The report, which acknowledges and examines the various social structures behind global human activity, insists that these must change for the negative trends to stop. This must include not only shifts in technology and policy, but also “new norms… fundamental reforms to economic and financial systems,” and “tackling poverty and inequality as vital parts of sustainability.” It is not stopgap measures and patchwork solutions, then, but system-wide, alterations which are necessary.

As unlikely as fundamental change may seem to some, the groundwork for it may indeed already be set. Though loud and abrasive leaders may take up the headlines, studies have shown that the underlying trend is one of growing discontent with extant institutions and systems – a trend that has given rise to left- as well as right-wing fringe parties. Though elements of such systemic disruption have threatened to exacerbate environmental concerns, the opposite may also occur. In other words, as the world is put “on notice,” it may indeed respond.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 9, 2019.

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