By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.
Biodiversity is plummeting worldwide, according to summaries of four landmark reports the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released on March 23 (and summarized in this IPBES media release). These comprise the most comprehensive study on biodiversity issued in the last decade and cover four regions: the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe-Central Asia.
In its reporting on the IPBES announcement, Destruction of nature as dangerous as climate change, scientists warn, the Guardian provides context:
The IPBES report will be used to inform decision-makers at a major UN conference later this year. Signatories to the Convention for Biodiversity will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh in November to discuss ways to raise targets and strengthen compliance. But there have been more than 140 scientific reports since 1977, almost all of which have warned of deterioration of the climate or natural world. Without more pressure from civil society, media and voters, governments have been reluctant to sacrifice short-term economic goals to meet the longer-term environmental challenge to human wellbeing.
The details are sobering; permit me to quote from the release, organized by the four regions.
Absent radical shifts in policy and practices, biodiversity is expected to continue to collapse in the Americas, according to IPBES:
climate change will be the fastest growing driver negatively impacting biodiversity by 2050 in the Americas, becoming comparable to the pressures imposed by land use change. On average today, the populations of species in an area are about 31% smaller than was the case at the time of European settlement. With the growing effects of climate change added to the other drivers, this loss is projected to reach 40% by 2050.
The report highlights the fact that indigenous people and local communities have created a diversity of polyculture and agroforestry systems, which have increased biodiversity and shaped landscapes. However, the decoupling of lifestyles from the local environment has eroded, for many, their sense of place, language and indigenous local knowledge. More than 60% of the languages in the Americas, and the cultures associated with them, are troubled or dying out.
By 2100, at least half of Africa’s bird and mammal species will be extinct, as a result of climate change. Furthermore, according to IBPES:
The report adds that approximately 500,000 square kilometres of African land is already estimated to have been degraded by overexploitation of natural resources, erosion,
salinization and pollution, resulting in significant loss of nature’s contributions to people. Even greater pressure will be placed on the continent’s biodiversity as the current African population of 1.25 billion people is set to double to 2.5 billion by 2050.
Marine and coastal environments make significant economic, social and cultural contributions to the people of Africa. Damage to coral reef systems, mostly due to pollution and climate change, has far-reaching implications for fisheries, food security, tourism and overall marine biodiversity.
Although the Asia-Pacific region also shows major drops in biodiversity, some limited success has also been reported here, with increases in the protected areas that resist the trend. Over the past 25 years, according to IBPES, marine protected areas in the region increased by almost 14% and terrestrial protected area increased by a mere 0.3%.
Yet significantly, forest cover increased by 2.5%, with the highest increases recorded in South Asia (5.8%) and especially, North East Asia (22.9%). This marked increase in forest cover in North East Asia is largely due to tree-planting programs implemented by China (and the high percentage reflects an increase from a very low base).
This limited success is, however, dwarfed by other catastrophic losses, especially in marine environments and with respect to their species:
Unsustainable aquaculture practices, overfishing and destructive harvesting, threaten coastal and marine ecosystems, with projections that, if current fishing practices continue, there will be no exploitable fish stocks in the region by 2048. Intertidal zones are also rapidly deteriorating due to human activities, with coral reefs of critical ecological, cultural and economic importance, already under serious threat, and some reefs having already been lost, especially in South and South-East Asia. According to the report, up to 90% of corals will suffer severe degradation by 2050, even under conservative climate change scenarios.
Moreover, eight of the ten rivers in the world most polluted by plastic waste are in the Asia Pacific region, according to NYT account discussing the IPBES study,
Nature’s ‘Alarming’ Decline Threatens Food, Water, Energy: U.N.
As with other regions, climate change is driving or is expected to worsen declines in biodiversity in the Asia-Pacific region:
The report emphasizes that climate change and associated extreme events pose great threats, especially to coastal ecosystems, low-lying coastal areas and islands. Climate change is also impacting species distributions, population sizes, and the timing of reproduction and migration. Increased frequencies of pest and disease outbreaks resulting from these changes may have additional negative effects on agricultural production and human well-being, with impacts projected to worsen.
In Europe and Central Asia, the increasing intensity of conventional agriculture and forestry is leading to biodiversity decline although there has also been limited adoption of sustainable agricultural and forestry practices. Overall, those living in this region consume more renewable natural resources than the region produces.
Within the European Union, marine species are under stress, according to IBPES:
…only 7% of marine species and 9% of marine habitat types show a ‘favourable conservation status’. Moreover 27% of species assessments and 66% of habitat types assessments show an ‘unfavourable conservation status’, with the others categorised as ‘unknown’.
Nonetheless, biodiversity promotion has yet to become a policy priority:
The authors find that further economic growth can facilitate sustainable development only if it is decoupled from the degradation of biodiversity and nature’s capacity to contribute to people. Such decoupling, however, has not yet happened, and would require far-reaching change in policies and tax reforms at the global and national levels.
Abandonment of traditional land-use systems, and loss of associated indigenous and local knowledge and practices, has been widespread in Europe and Central Asia, the report finds. Production-based subsidies driving growth in agricultural, forestry and natural resource extraction sectors tend to exacerbate conflicting land-use issues, often impinging on available territory for traditional users. Maintenance of traditional land use and lifestyles in Europe and Central Asia is strongly related to institutional adequacy and economic viability.
Promising Policy Options?
The report is cautiously optimistic on the prospects for effective policy to restore biodiversity and forestall calamity, noting:
Accompanying the stark concerns of the IPBES experts, however, are messages of hope: promising policy options do exist and have been found to work in protecting and restoring biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, where they have been effectively applied.
Details are rather thin, leaving me to conclude these “messages of hope” may have been dictated by Professor Pangloss.
A National Geographic account, Life on Earth Is Under Assault—But There’s Still Hope, fleshes out that is necessary to achieve a more optimistic scenario, based on an interview it conducted with IBES chair Robert Watson:
We need to eat a more balanced diet, with less meat and less food waste, to take pressure off biodiversity, said [Watson. We also need to choose to be more efficient in our water use, particularly in agriculture, and reduce our use of toxic chemicals. We have to drastically cut fossil-fuel use by using more mass transit, electric vehicles, and increasing energy efficiency, because climate change impacts biodiversity, the report notes. Without cuts to fossil fuel consumption, climate change will have as big an impact on biodiversity declines as land use change by 2050.
More than five hundred fifty scientists participated in creating these peer-reviewed IPBES Regional Assessment Reports on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which involved the review of more than 11,800 scientific papers, as well as incorporation of extensive Government and other information sources. IPBES last week released individual summaries for policymakers of each of the four reports. These summaries were approved by the IPBES Plenary and include policy options from each assessment. IPBES says the complete reports, including data, will be published later this year.