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Nature’s dangerous decline ‘unprecedented’: IPBES report

Farmers spraying pesticides in a wheat field (Jinning Li/
"We cannot continue to manage our environment with a view that degradation does not matter if we cannot see it, or if it transpires elsewhere... the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of tackling this degradation at the source"

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, warns a landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary, meeting last week (29 April – 4 May) in Paris.

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “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.”

“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,” he said. “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.”

“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.

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental Report of its kind and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating evidence.

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs 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 possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Dr Helaina Black, leader of the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group, commented: “All countries around the world have shared responsibility for maintaining and exacerbating biodiversity losses, but for very different reasons. We are tackling a crisis that was started many generations ago and which has only increased in severity through the decades as agricultural production intensified, native habitat clearing expanded and industrial pollution increased.

“This makes the challenge of tackling biodiversity loss two-fold – what can we do now to stop further losses from current practices and what can be done to restore habitats degraded by what has happened in the past. Equally the crises that we face with biodiversity and climate change are inseparable. The causes are the same and the solutions need to be shared – they are all about the actions of people.”

In Scotland, previous generations drained peatlands for forestry with major detrimental effects not only on native flora and fauna but also in degrading and compromising an important terrestrial carbon store, Dr Black added, also highlighting how collaborations between NGOs, companies, land managers and Scottish Government are now restoring peatlands across Scotland to benefit future generations.

“Collective leadership will be essential in meeting the challenge of restoring terrestrial biodiversity successfully. Land has historically been managed primarily for single outcomes such as food, wood, water, energy. We need to change our thinking to accommodate the other outcomes that we need from land – other outcomes that are often less obvious but no less vital, which the IPBES report clearly sets out.

“We are at a crossroads in land use planning and management. There is a realistic opportunity to refocus and deliver what is called a “multifunctional” approach which takes into account the range of outcomes that we need from land. This approach acknowledges that we need our environment for many different reasons, and we need to balance our management to support all of these. In so doing we are accepting that there will be trade-offs, for example maximum productivity may not be achievable to improve biodiversity, soil health and water quality.”

Dr Black argues that sustainable land use can only truly be achieved through some form of balance in land use, and researchers globally are now being challenged to work with land manager and others to identify what this balance needs to be in different circumstances and to identify the right incentives to help manage land differently.

“The IPBES report highlights that healthy multifunctional landscapes work because of the biodiversity that lives there, and that losses of soil, habitats and biodiversity will have far reaching consequences. We cannot continue to manage our environment with a view that degradation does not matter if we cannot see it, or if it transpires elsewhere.  The costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of tackling this degradation at the source.”

The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

To increase the policy-relevance of the Report, the assessment’s authors have ranked, for the first time at this scale and based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence, the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. These culprits are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Report notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics – impacts expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.

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, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors. 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. 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, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15). Loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue as well.

Other notable findings of the Report include:

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • 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.
  • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold 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, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) - a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
  • Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the Report, except those that include transformative change – due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change, although with significant differences between regions.

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Details about the James Hutton Institute's Ecological Sciences group are available from Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media Manager, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or +44 (0)7791 193918 (mobile).

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.