1 million species are facing annihilation—inside Earth's sixth mass extinction event

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April 16, 2020

1 million species are facing annihilation—inside Earth's sixth mass extinction event

Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Many of these extinctions are predicted to occur within decades—more than ever before in human history, according to a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released in May 2019 at the seventh session of the IPBES Plenary in Paris.

The report is the most comprehensive ever completed and the first of its kind built on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, which introduced innovative ways to evaluate evidence. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with input from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of scenarios for the coming decades.

Among our planet's 8 million species, extinction is as much a part of the natural process of the planet as species adaptations. In fact, 99% of all species that ever lived on the planet are now gone. However, it is the current pace of the extinctions which is alarming. The report warns that the current rate of species extinction is 100 to 10,000 times the regular pace of Mother Nature, and it is accelerating. Humans are not only living through the sixth mass extinction but are also provoking it.

"The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture," said Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). "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."

Setting this report apart from previous studies are knowledge, evidence, and policy options provided to decision-makers. Professor Watson, a previous chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is optimistic that despite the ominous picture, it is not too late to make a difference.

"Through 'transformative change', nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably––this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values," he adds.

Based on a thorough analysis of the evidence, the summary pinpoints the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impact so far. Importantly, IPBES has also drawn from the knowledge of Indigenous People and Local Communities for the first time at this scale.

In the following gallery, Stacker explores the most notable findings of the report, including the scale of the loss, the drivers of change, the impact on human lives and economy because of biodiversity loss, and transformational change practices suggested by the IPBES for the broader good of the public and the planet. To explain Earth's current mass extinction event, Stacker dove into key statistics from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

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Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate

- Over 500,000 of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival
- The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.
- 290 million hectares of native forest cover loss from 1990 to 2015 due to clearing and wood harvesting.
- More than 85% of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000—loss of wetlands is three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss.
- The global forest area today covers 68% of the estimated pre-industrial area.
- 30% reduction in global terrestrial habitat integrity caused by habitat loss and deterioration.
- 47% extent of reduction in global indicators of ecosystem against their estimated natural baselines, with many continuing to decline by at least 4% per decade.

Diversity within species, between species, and within ecosystems, is declining fast. The Living Planet Index continues to show around a 30% global decline since 1970. This decline is seen in all biomes and is highest in freshwater habitats. But the trend is not the same all over the world—tropical and temperate regions show divergent trends, as do high-income and low- and middle-income countries. 

Species extinction is happening tens to 100 times faster than the last 10 million years

- Over 40% of amphibians threatened with extinction
- Almost 33% of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and over 33% of marine mammals threatened with extinction
- 25% is the average proportion of species threatened with extinction across terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups that have been studied in sufficient detail
- 10% of insect species threatened with extinction

Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it usually occurs at a rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate that we are losing species at up to a thousand times this rate, with dozens going extinct every day. Most critical are the amphibians, with the current amphibian extinction rate ranging from 25,039 to 45,474 times the background extinction rate. Some species that have gone extinct in the past 50 years are the Western black rhino, the golden toad, and the beautiful Spix’s macaw.

The sixth mass extinction has been triggered by humans

- 75% of the terrestrial environment has been “severely altered” to date by human actions.
- 66% marine environment altered by humans
- Over 100% growth of urban areas since 1992
- 105% increase in global human population since 1970, unevenly across countries and regions
- 17,000 large-scale mining sites (in 171 countries), mostly managed by 616 international corporations
- 25 million km of newly paved roads foreseen by 2050, with 90% of construction in the least developed and developing countries
- 6,500 offshore oil and gas ocean mining installations in 53 countries

The previous five mass extinctions occurred over the past 450 million years; the last one occurred about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs. These were all triggered by natural disasters or changes in the planet’s climate. The sixth mass extinction is a man-made catastrophe.

“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Professor Josef Settele, one of the co-chairs of the global assessment, of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in 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.”

Illustrating the point, the study says 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, resulting mainly from cattle ranching in Latin America (about 42 million hectares) and plantations in Southeast Asia (about 75 million hectares, of which 80% is for palm oil.)

In previous studies, scientists estimated that the species lifespan for contemporary mammals and birds has decreased up to 10,000 years––meaning it became 100 to 1000 times shorter than fossil forms. If their habitats continues to be destroyed at the same pace, the lifespan of these species will soon be only 200-400 years.

Five factors in nature have the largest global impact

To increase the policy relevance of the report, the assessment authors have ranked the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far.

These are, in descending order:

  1. Changes in land and sea use
  2. Direct exploitation of organisms
  3. Climate change
  4. Pollution
  5. Invasive alien species

A few of the statistics that led to this listing are:

- More than a third of Earth’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production.
- Raw timber harvest has risen by 45%.
- Approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are now extracted globally every year—having nearly doubled since 1980.
- 47% of land-based flightless mammals and a quarter of threatened birds may already have been negatively affected by climate change.
- Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
- 70% increase since 1970 in numbers of invasive alien species across 21 countries with detailed records
- 100-300 million people in coastal areas at increased risk because of loss of coastal habitat protection

Climate change impact will increase with temperature rise

- 1 degree Celsius is the average global temperature difference in 2017 compared to pre-industrial levels, rising 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade
- More than 3mm annual average global sea-level rise over the past two decades
- 40% rise in the carbon footprint of tourism from 2009 to 2013
- 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions are from transport and food consumption related to tourism
- 5% estimated fraction of species at risk of extinction from 2°C warming alone, rising to 16% in the event of 4.3°C warming

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 to 0.8 degrees Celsius. Climate change affects species from the genetic level to the ecosystem level. Even for global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees, most terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly. Sometimes, climate change impact can surpass the impacts of changes in land and sea use and other drivers of change, like pollution and invasive species.

July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The average global temperature in July was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average of 60.4 degrees, making it the hottest July in the 140-year record. The record warmth also shrank Arctic and Antarctic sea ice to historic lows.

There is a tenfold increase in plastic pollution since 1980

- 10 times increase in plastic pollution since 1980
- 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters
- Fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced over 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totaling over 245,000 km2 (591-595)—a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
- 40% of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.
- Over 80% of global wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.

Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually. Half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.

But plastic pollution is not the only culprit. Our rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and seas are drowning in chemicals, waste, plastic, and other pollutants. Unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined. Potentially harmful contaminants—from arsenic to copper to lead—have been found in the tap water of every single state in the nation.

7.6 billion-plus people and per-capita consumption also drive biodiversity crisis

- Since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion), rising unevenly across countries and regions.
- Per capita, gross domestic product is four times higher—with ever-more distant consumers shifting the environmental burden of consumption and production across regions.
- 15% increase in global per capita consumption of materials since 1980
- Developed countries have a 50 times higher per capita GDP than least developed countries
- 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa

Earth’s human population is 7.6 billion, which is unevenly distributed among countries and regions. By carefully studying the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, the study authors conclude that there is often a pattern of global interconnectivity.

Resource extraction and production often occur in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in another region. The huge increase in global per capita consumption comes at the cost of depleting natural resources, increasing pollution, and multiplying threats to local wildlife––not necessarily at the same location as the consumers.

$235 to $577 billion in global crop output at risk from pollinator loss

- 300% increase in food crop production since 1970, but 23% of land areas have seen a reduction in productivity because of land degradation
- Over 75% of global food crop types rely on animal pollination
- 25%: greenhouse gas emissions caused by land clearing, crop production, and fertilization, with animal-based food contributing 75% to that figure
- Fish biomass by the end of the century may decrease between 3 and 25% in low and high climate warming scenarios, respectively

Since 1970, rates of agricultural production, fish harvesting, bio-energy production, and harvest of materials have increased in response to population growth, rising demand, and technological development. But this has come at a steep price: key resources, such as soil carbon, pollinator diversity, and fish biomass have declined.

Several studies indicate that American and European beekeepers are already suffering large annual losses. In the US, beekeepers have lost around 30% of their colonies every year since 2006, with total annual losses sometimes reaching as high as 42%. The reasons include exposure to parasites and pesticides, loss of floral abundance, and loss of diversity because of increased land-use. In addition, habitat destruction limits nesting sites for wild pollinators.

A global assessment of fish biomass over 100 years found that while the population of predator fish is declining––54% occurring in the last 40 years––the biomass of small prey fish is increasing, changing the composition of oceans rapidly.

Unsustainable agriculture and fisheries have the most negative impact on the environment

- Over 33% of the world’s land surface and 75% of freshwater resources devoted to crop or livestock production
- 50% of agriculture expansion is at the expense of forests
- $100 billion estimated level of financial support in OECD countries (2015) to agriculture that is potentially harmful to the environment
- More than 90% or over 30 million people of the global commercial fishers are small-scale fisheries representing nearly 50% of global fish catch
- From 1970 to 2000, seagrass meadows declined by 10% every decade

Human sustenance depends on agriculture, but the way we grow and process food causes irredeemable damage. Unsustainable agricultural practices are directly leading to deforestation, degradation of soil, water and air, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, irrigation problems, and the generation of toxic waste.

The case is similar with ocean harvesting and fisheries. The report finds that in 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.

Overfishing transforms an originally stable, mature, and efficient ecosystem into one that is stressed, mainly by reducing abundance, changing the trophic chain, and transforming the habitat. Environmental damage may come from the very nature of the fishing technology (e.g. using dynamite or poison) or from the inappropriate use of an otherwise acceptable gear (e.g. using trawls in coral reefs or seagrass beds).

80% of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be met by current trajectories

- 22 of 44 assessed targets under the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, ocean, and land are being undermined by substantial negative trends in nature.
- Most Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 likely to be missed
- 72% of local indicators in nature developed and used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities show negative trends

Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories. Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets is a set of 20 global targets under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011 to 2020. With good progress on components of only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline.

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political, and technological factors. "The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature,transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good," Watson said.

Transformative changes push for a system-wide reorganization across ecological and economical policies

IPBES explains transformative change as a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values. By analyzing six policy scenarios, including Regional Competition, Business as Usual, and Global Sustainability, the IPBES assessment team projected the likely impacts on the biodiversity of these pathways by 2050.

They concluded that, except in scenarios that include a transformative change, the negative trends will continue to 2050 and beyond because of the projected impacts. Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a globally sustainable economy, steering away from the limited paradigm of economic growth.

[Pictured: France's Minister of Ecology speaks at IPBES, 2019.]

Nature managed by indigenous people and local communities is declining less rapidly than other lands

- At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples.
- While the decline is less rapid in these areas because of the sustainable practices, 72% of local indicators developed and used by indigenous peoples and local communities show deterioration that undermines local livelihoods.

The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and nature’s contributions to people are also areas in which large concentrations of indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities live.

The authors found that the regional and global scenarios lack, and would benefit from, explicit consideration of the views, perspectives, and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems and their desired future development pathways. Indigenous leadership, inclusion, and participation in environmental governance would enhance their quality of life, as well as boost nature conservation, restoration, and sustainable use.

The extinction risk would have been at least 29% greater without conservation action in the recent decade

- 29% average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008
- Over 107 highly threatened birds, mammals, and reptiles estimated to have benefitted from the eradication of invasive mammals on islands
- 50% decrease in the net rate of forest loss since the 1990s (excluding those managed for timber or agricultural extraction)
- 110 million hectares rise in planted forests from 1990 to 2015

One rare conservation win in 2018 was when the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated the mountain gorillas’ status from “critically endangered” to “endangered,” a more promising, if still precarious, designation. There are now just over 1,000 of these animals in their native East Africa, up from an estimated population of 680 a decade ago. There have been other conservation success stories for many species of birds, mammals, and amphibians across the world, proving that consistent efforts can make a significant difference.

The cross-sectoral approach of transformative change can still conserve, restore, and lead to the sustainable use of nature

The report presents a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance, and many others.

It highlights the importance of, among other strategies, adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.

Policy actions and societal initiatives, together with initiatives at various levels have contributed to expanding and strengthening the current network of ecologically representative and well-connected protected area networks and other effective area-based conservation measures, protecting watersheds and incentives, and sanctions to reduce pollution.

Sustainable local actions with global implications can prevent biodiversity loss and lead to a sustainable future

The IPBES Global Assessment report articulates an integrated approach in agriculture, marine systems, freshwater systems, and urban areas that revitalizes the local economy, recognizes the importance of different value systems, reduces waste, pollution, and biodiversity loss, and can ultimately shape a sustainable future for all.

- In agriculture systems, the report emphasizes: promoting good agricultural and agroecological practices; multifunctional landscape planning; conservation of the diversity of genes, varieties, cultivars, breeds, landraces and species.
- In the marine system: ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management; protecting and managing key marine biodiversity areas; reducing runoff pollution into oceans
- In freshwater systems: policy options and actions include a more inclusive water governance for collaborative water management and greater equity; promoting practices to reduce soil erosion, sedimentation, and pollution run-off; increasing water storage.
- In urban areas: a healthy urban environment for low-income communities; improving access to green spaces; sustainable production and consumption; and ecological connectivity within urban spaces, particularly with native species.
- In all nations: full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in governance

"We have already seen the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change, such as innovative policies by many countries, local authorities, and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide," said Sir Robert Watson. "From the young global shapers behind the #VoiceforthePlanet movement to school strikes for climate, there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future."

[Pictured: IPBES scientists at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 6, 2019.]

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