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Biodiversity Report Paints a Bleak Picture

Landmark study calls for urgent “transformative changes” to meet goals for conserving and sustainably using nature.

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The natural world is under siege and declining at a dizzying and dismal rate, according to a sobering new report on biodiversity.

The rate of global change in nature during the past half century “is unprecedented in human history,” according to a landmark global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services released today, 6 May.

The global rate of species extinction “is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating,” according to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report states that about 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

A Call for Transformative Changes

This downward trend in biodiversity and for the numerous ecosystem services that nature provides to humanity can be reversed through urgent and concerted efforts to foster “transformative changes,” according to the report by IPBES, an independent intergovernmental body that was established in 2012 and currently has more than 130 member states.

“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,” the report states. “By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

“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,” said IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson. “The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.”

IPBES executive secretary Anne Larigauderie told Eos that despite the difficult situation, the report can make a real difference in helping to reverse grim biodiversity trends. She said that there is a growing awareness around the world about the need to confront the problem and that the report “is really making the case that needed to be made for biodiversity.”

Larigauderie said one indication of interest at the highest levels of government is that she and some other experts involved with the report are meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on 6 May to discuss the issue.

“I would like to have biodiversity elevated to the same level as climate change on the policy makers’ agenda and to have those two issues addressed together and not separately as they are being addressed now,” she said. “For climate change, we are starting to see quite a bit of action. So I’m hoping that the same will take place for biodiversity.”

The report, compiled by 145 expert authors who reviewed about 15,000 scientific and government sources and also drew on indigenous and local knowledge, is the most comprehensive document ever prepared about biodiversity.

“The shocking thing is that there hasn’t been an international assessment of the state of biodiversity since 2005,” conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy told Eos. Lovejoy, who is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C., coined the term “biological diversity” in 1980.

“It’s equally concerning that it took the biodiversity community and the international process until 2012 to create a biodiversity equivalent to the IPCC,” Lovejoy said, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Some Startling Statistics

Some of the other startling statistics in the report are that 75% of the terrestrial environment and 40% of marine environments have been severely altered by human actions, about 55% of the ocean area is covered by industrial fishing, the growth of urban areas has more than doubled since 1992, and the amount of renewable and nonrenewable resources that are extracted globally each year has doubled since 1980.

According to the report, the direct drivers of change in nature that have the largest global impact are, in order, changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the invasion of alien species. The report warns that the future impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are projected to become more pronounced over the coming decades.

The report also lays out a road map of actions to reverse the situation and protect and sustainably manage biodiversity and ecosystem services. The road map calls for improved efforts not only in conservation but also in governance, finance, and other areas.

Why We Are Losing Biodiversity

“The reason we are losing biodiversity is that people find it in their short-term selfish interest to destroy the planet,” Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told Eos. “This report is not going to make those people any less willing to destroy forests, to overexploit the oceans, to pollute rivers, and so on.”

However, said Pimm, an expert in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them, the report has significant value. “Basically, what the report says is, ‘Look, biodiversity loss matters. It matters to human health. It matters to human well-being.’ The recognition that biodiversity loss is a major environmental challenge of the 21st century is hugely important.”

The report “will give a lot of particularly policy makers the option of pointing to the report and saying, ‘You know, this is what the world’s scientists think. We have a problem. We should do something about it,’” Pimm added.

Other experts also applauded the report. William Ripple, professor of ecology at Oregon State University, told Eos that the report “does a credible job of thoroughly documenting the imperiled status of the life support systems on planet Earth,” and he hopes that the document gets the attention of policy makers.

However, Ripple was disappointed that the report had little discussion about human population, which he said is a major source of sustainability problems, and meat consumption, which he said is one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity. “Recommendations on how to stabilize the human population should be a top priority in a report such as this one,” said Ripple, who was the lead author of the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” published by BioScience in 2017.

Parallels with Climate Change

Larigauderie, Pimm, and other experts drew a parallel between the IPBES report and reports by the IPCC and others that have propelled awareness about climate change.

“The [IPBES] report clearly shows that the magnitude of deterioration of nature is quite similar to the status of the global climate, which usually gets a lot more media and political and other attention,” Christoph Thies, an expert on climate, forests, and biodiversity with Greenpeace, told Eos. “Governments and societies around the world have to really wake up and realize that an intact climate and intact biosphere and species and ecosystems are the very fundament of a healthy life.”

Climate change “has been part of the international fabric in a way that biodiversity simply has not. [This focus on biodiversity] is way, way overdue,” said Lovejoy.

“We’re not going to get where we need to get by business as usual,” he added. “Transformative change sometimes comes just by change in awareness and attitude. Look at the growing awareness and concern in the United States about climate change.”

A Paris Moment?

Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist and senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, told Eos that the report and an upcoming international conference could move the issue of biodiversity forward, similar to how the 2015 Paris climate conference and accord advanced action on climate change.

“I think that we are about ready to have that same kind of moment at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [conference] in 2020, where the world’s nations come together to say, ‘This has to stop,’ and they’re going to set an agenda that is socially and culturally determined, that’s underpinned by science.” She added, “I do see the same kind of interest that we saw leading up to Paris in the issues around nature and nature’s loss and the impacts.”

Hugh Possingham, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, said that the report “represents an unambiguous call to arms on biodiversity loss” and is being released just in time for the CBD conference in October. “As with climate, the situation is dire and urgent,” he told Eos. “We agree that, like climate change, the time for action is now. Every year we stall, the negative consequences accelerate and will last longer.”

Ecosystem Services

The report focused not only on the threats to individual species but also on degradation of ecosystems and ecosystem services that humans depend on.

Shaw said that when many people think about biodiversity, the first thing they think about is species extinction. “Just as important is a loss of benefits that nature provides humans,” she said. Among those benefits she noted are clean air, clean water, and healthy soils that produce food.

“It’s not just the loss of charismatic megafauna” that are at risk, Shaw said. “It’s the loss to a basic life support system for humans.”

“Species are the bits and pieces of ecosystems,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. He said that some other ecosystem services that species provide include pollinating crops, reducing flooding, providing medicines, and moderating the climate. “As we lose more species because of our carelessness, we impoverish our own world, and we provide a poorer world to future generations. The report does a great job of highlighting how important healthy ecosystems and biodiversity really are to us and to future generations.”

A Message for Governments

Greenwald and others urged government leaders around the world to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“I’d like to see this report raise awareness, and particularly raise awareness with those in power, because it’s going to take government, and our government in particular, to make changes that are needed to avoid catastrophic species loss and further degradation of ecosystems,” he said, referring to the United States. “The Trump administration is an administration that, for example, bends over backwards to do the bidding of the oil and gas industry. I think we see that in a lot of countries around that world, that powerful special interests have undue influence.”

“We have a very serious biodiversity challenge that is also tied up with the state of the way we are managing the planet as a linked biological and physical system,” Lovejoy said. “The way that a lot of things work in the world now that you have something official like this report is that with some luck it will produce a real response on the international level and by governments.”

Lovejoy added that the message for the United States in particular is that “if you really want an economically successful longer-term future for the United States, you basically have to embrace the way the planet works as a living system.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Biodiversity report paints a bleak picture, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO123077. Published on 06 May 2019.
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