Up to 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction — many of them within decades — according to scientists and researchers who produced a sweeping U.N. report on how humanity’s burgeoning growth is putting the world’s biodiversity at perilous risk.
Some of the report’s findings might not seem new to those who have followed stories of how humans have affected the environment, from shifts in seasons to the prevalence of plastics and other contaminants in water. But its authors say the assessment is the most accurate and comprehensive review yet of the damage people are inflicting on the planet. And they warn that nature is declining at “unprecedented” rates and that the changes will put people at risk.
“Protecting biodiversity amounts to protecting humanity,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said at a news conference about the findings Monday morning.
The report depicts “an ominous picture,” says Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (commonly called the IPBES), which compiled the assessment.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” Watson says. He emphasizes that business and financial concerns are also threatened. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” he says.
The report lists a number of key global threats, from humans’ use of land and sea resources to challenges posed by climate change, pollution and invasive species.
“Insect pollinators are unfortunately an excellent example of the problems caused by human activities,” Scott McArt, an entomology professor at Cornell University, says in a statement about the report.
“There’s actually a newly coined phrase for insect declines — the ‘windshield effect’ — owing to the fact that if you drove your car at dusk 30 years ago, you would need to clean the windshield frequently, but that’s no longer the case today,” McArt says.
In its tally of humanity’s toll on the Earth, the assessment says “approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year,” adding that the figure has nearly doubled since 1980.
Here’s a short selection of some of the report’s notable findings:
- 75% of land environment and some 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 used for crops or livestock.
- “Up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.”
- Between 100 million and 300 million people now face “increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.”
- Since 1992, the world’s urban areas have more than doubled.
- “Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980,” and from “300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge” and other industrial waste are dumped into the world’s water systems.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net.’ But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” says Sandra Díaz of Argentina, a co-chair of the global assessment.
Díaz and other experts portrayed humans as both the cause of the threat and a target of its risks. As humanity demands ever more food, energy, housing and other resources, they say, it’s also undermining its own food security and long-term prospects.
“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” says Josef Settele, a co-chair from Germany. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
The report found patterns of “telecoupling,” which another co-chair, Eduardo S. Brondízio of Brazil and the U.S., describes as the phenomenon of resources being extracted and made into goods in one part of the world “to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”
That pattern, Brondízio says, makes it more complicated to avoid damage to nature through the usual avenues of governance and accountability.
While the report’s eye-popping statistics about what the world stands to lose because of human activity are drawing headlines, conservation advocates say they hope the assessment helps people grasp the bigger picture.
“The hope is that folks will be able to extrapolate beyond the individual stories they’ve been seeing about orcas or monarchs or bees or bats or caribou or whatever,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. He adds that the new report could help people “see that this is a systemic threat that could potentially cause the sixth extinction even, if we don’t act quickly.”
Hundreds of experts worked together to create the global assessment, with a total of 455 authors representing 50 countries taking part, according to the IPBES.
The agency calls the report one of the most comprehensive assessments of the planet’s health ever undertaken, saying it is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005.
Its findings are based on reviews of some 15,000 scientific and government sources, the IPBES says, adding that in addition to those formal sources, the report also includes insights from indigenous and local communities.
To create the assessment, the IPBES was asked to answer several wide-ranging questions, from reporting on the current status and patterns of change in the natural world to “plausible futures” for nature and the quality of life through 2050. Other questions sought to find interventions and challenges for coping with those changes — and possibly improving dire outcomes.
The goal, the report’s authors say, was not only to take stock of a worsening predicament but to give policymakers “the tools they need to make better choices for people and nature.”
The assessment highlights dire predictions for habitats and native species in South America and parts of Asia. But the NWF’s O’Mara warns that the U.S. also has much to lose — especially if biodiversity is viewed as someone else’s problem.
“This is a problem here at home,” O’Mara says. “About one-third of all species right now in the U.S. are at heightened risk of potential extinction in the next couple of decades.”
Echoing what environmental experts said in Europe as the IPBES released its report, O’Mara says it is not too late to act.