One million species at risk of extinction

Bee-mergency: Around 10% of insect species, which are crucial for pollinating plants, are at risk.

Rainforests cleared. Oceans poisoned. Animals dying. Yesterday, a major UN report warned of the disastrous effects that humans are having on nature — and its consequences for humanity.

The UN’s new report on the natural world took three years to write. It involved 450 experts poring over 15,000 scientific studies and reports from indigenous people. Yesterday, it was finally published: 1,800 pages in total, with a 40-page summary. It makes for grim reading.

The report says that human activity is causing the natural world to decline at a staggering rate, which has never been seen on Earth before. Reversing the effects is possible, but it will take “transformative change” in everything we do.

If it continues, the crisis will put human life at risk too. “We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” explained Robert Watson, chair of IBPES, the organisation behind the report.

What does it actually say?

Life on Earth: The human population has doubled since 1970, and the world’s economy has grown four times. This rapid growth is putting pressure on Earth’s resources as forests are cleared and cities expand. Natural ecosystems have lost half their area to make way for humans and their livestock.

But all life is interconnected. Insects, plants, and animals all depend on each other to survive. Losing one species may not make a difference, but lose too many and the whole system begins to collapse. And human activity has now put one million species at risk of extinction.

Farming: Agriculture is the number-one cause of nature’s decline. Around 25% of Earth’s non-ice land is now used for grazing cattle. Together, agriculture and deforestation make up a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Oceans: Only 3% of the world’s waters are free from human pressure. A third of fish populations are exploited by overfishing. Two out of five amphibians are at risk of extinction, as are a third of coral reefs. Meanwhile, 80% of wastewater is pumped into oceans, streams and lakes, along with 300-400m tons of metals and toxic industrial chemicals.

Climate change: Although the report is about nature, global warming is closely related. In fact, the two issues are “equally important”, says Watson.

Better nature?

Is there time to reverse the disaster? The scale of change needed is difficult even to imagine. It will involve governments and people all around the world putting the environment before everything else — including growing economies and lifting people out of poverty.

The report says we must try anyway. Luckily, the solutions are often the same as those needed to fight climate change: planting billions of trees; switching to renewable energy, and eating less meat. Humans must learn that a good life is not about consuming more, but living in balance with nature.

You Decide

  1. What is the best way to help the natural world?
  2. Will the UN’s report change the way we think about nature?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are in charge of your country’s environment policy. Write down three things you would do in light of yesterday’s report.
  2. Create a poster encouraging people to do one thing that will help the natural world. It could be something from this article, or something from your own research.

Some People Say...

“I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”

Vincent Van Gogh

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The report was published yesterday at a meeting in Paris. It found that wild animals’ biomass (their collective weight) is down 82% from prehistory levels. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of oceans and 85% of wetlands have been severely altered or lost. Governments will meet in 2020 to agree plans for saving nature and the climate.
What do we not know?
Whether those changes will be enough to reverse the effects of the disaster, or whether governments will take action once the agreements have been made. We also do not know if this report will receive the same kind of attention as the UN’s report into climate change last year, which inspired movements like the school strike for climate and Extinction Rebellion.

Word Watch

Indigenous people
Communities which are native to their country. The report drew on the “deep knowledge of people who have been managing diversity for a long time around the world”, explained one of the report’s lead authors, Sandra Diaz. Indigenous communities are also more at risk from changes to the natural world.
IBPES
Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It includes governments from around the world, and the report was signed off by representatives from each of them. IBPES is part of the United Nations.
Doubled
There were 3.7 billion people in 1970. There are now 7.5 billion. The world population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.
Closely related
In fact, climate change and the crisis in the natural world both make each other worse. Climate change is a threat to biodiversity, as temperatures rise around the world. At the same time, cutting down trees makes climate change worse, as plants are one of the best ways of absorbing carbon dioxide.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.