Biodiversity Plummets, Posing Grave Global Threat

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.

The Americas

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.

Europe-Central Asia

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.

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  1. Ed

    Predictions of near term human extinction seem extreme, for obvious reasons, but the fact is that humans either need the biosphere to be in a certain way, in regards to things like range of temperatures and the existence of other flora and fauna, to exist or we don’t. If humans can exist in a completely artificially constructed biosphere, then I guess things will be OK though a little sad, but if humans can’t exist without the natural biosphere that existed before the industrial revolution, then there is a problem. Because that is getting destroyed and there is absolutely no sign that humans will let up until it is destroyed.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Addressing the little problems with ‘biodiversity’ we are experiencing, which other sources describe as an ongoing sixth mass extinction event, might “achieve a more optimistic scenario” by our eating less meat, not wasting food and doing something reasonable to address the ongoing Climate Disruption … really? I will clean my plate and change some more light bulbs to do my part.

      The Earth’s poles are melting and studies of paleo-climate strongly suggest we might experience rapid changes in sea-level and temperature. In past times ‘rapid’ meant decades and in several cases meant a couple years, sea-level increases ranged in the several of meters, and land temperature increases ranged in degrees per year. The good news is that these increases reached a plateau where they stayed for a while before proceeding to a second plateau several of meters of sea-level and degrees per year higher, and then remained at that plateau. [That’s the good news … but the bad news is what happens if CO2 reaches 600 parts per million at which point further climate adjustments might take place.]

      The climate can and has changed extremely rapidly in the past and may do so again and very soon. Animals can migrate to new regions, but plants migrate much more slowly and neither may be able to keep up with rate of climate change we could experience.

      What might our world look like in one hundred years? Will there be great forests of new trees, bushes, and flowers happily situated in their new climate zones — or will there be gray forests of lichen and moss covered tree skeletons? Maybe the kudzu can fill some of the open niches along with a proliferation of fungi. I find speculating on the adaptations of animal life much more problematic and I think there will be a lot fewer humans in this future world. They will probably eat less meat and make considerable efforts not to waste food. Without relatively stable and predictable weather growing crops may present some difficulties. The best I could come up with was a fall back to Asimov’s yeast based foods, perhaps supplemented with single cell algae.

    2. Demented chimp

      We are the only species a that recognises and understands the problem, and is trying to mitigate the damage.

      Temporary blip transition blip if we can hold our civilisation together and don’t become too pessimistic from people spreading doomsday scenarios. A lot of tge end of the world rubbish that is written should be kept to a street corner and a placard.

      Fact is The biosphere is dangerous to human existence,, and is destined to kill us all if we don’t build more knowledge to create solutions. We have the comforts we do because of what we have created/built. The fate of 99.9% of species is be on the constant edge of starvation and then go extinct.

      Massive climate swings and extinction events occur at regular intervals WITHOUT our doing anything.

      There are always going to be problems. Be optimistic, solve the problems. Only we amongst all life on this planet have the capacity to do so.because we have explanatory knowledge

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        It is very difficult to be optimistic and solve the problems living in a society where I have little or no control over the situation as it plays out. As for doomsday scenarios and keeping such sad tales to street corners — the characterization of paleo-climate I sketched is taken directly from the 2014 Nye Lecture “ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE: THE VIEW FROM THE PAST, THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE” presented to American Geophysical Union (AGU) by Dr. James White []. If the climate can change as quickly as described and very probably will I want to pose the question: What will the world be like and in particular what kind of plants and animals will there be in our wild and rural areas? I speculate that much of our pine trees and forests will die off, along with maples trees and many of the existing plants in my climate zone. I also suspect it will take a while for plant species from two or more climate zones away to populate the openings in my climate zone. Animal life which includes humans, depends on plant life. What will the natural world be like in 100 years and how can we adapt our agriculture? I am trying to visualize the world of the near future.

        I do not believe it is either pessimistic or ‘doomsday’ to speculate that little will be done to slow the increase of CO2 in our atmosphere and the Arctic shows signs of becoming largely ice free very soon whether we control CO2 emissions or not. Instead of intimating that I am overreacting what can you offer to help me become more optimistic? What solutions to the problems of Climate Disruption and Mass Extinction help you retain your optimism? In place of solutions I would greatly welcome ideas for adaptations for the next century. Noting that massive climate swings and extinction events have occurred naturally at irregular times in the past is neither helpful nor soothing.

        1. Demented chimp

          Would recommend the beginning of infinity as a key read. Written by David Deutsche a physicist who developed some of quantum computing field (no slouch). Certainly gave me a dose of optimism and a new way of framing things. Read that and especially chapter 9 which deals with optimism (Not the pangloss definition ) and pessimism.

          As for control it’s in our hands to fight for a better world and ptotect the institutions that allow for dynamic societies that allow for open criticism of ideas and the growth of knowledge.

          Yes there are problems and things will change, solutions have to be found.but but prophesy isn’t very helpful, time and time again such predictions are proved wrong because they couldntn know what they didnt know. Malthus fertilizer etc etc.

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            Thank you for the reference. I scanned some of the Amazon reviews. However I doubt it would help me feel much more optimistic about the ongoing mass extinctions and Climate Disruptions. The observations of rapid climate change in the past are based on ice-core data. They are not predictions. The best current knowledge is that the Earth’s climate did indeed change very rapidly in past eons. Both the magnitude and time scale for the changes were read from the ice-core data. The mass extinctions are ongoing and regardless of predictions about future extinctions I know no way to place a value on the species already lost.

            I made the prediction that a very rapid climate change aggravated by the human exhaustion of natural habits would lead to rapid and extensive loss of plant life. It takes little prediction to worry that the pine trees in my climate zone will soon be dead and gone. Your assertion “prophesy isn’t very helpful, time and time again such predictions are proved wrong” ignores the value of very practical prophesies like whether it will rain soon or not. If it rains you will be pleased you carried your umbrella, and little disappointed otherwise.

            However I have a very particular reason for making predictions about plant life and crops. I have been playing at writing a short story set about one hundred years in the future and I am trying to imagine what the world might be like then based on the best evidence I can find. If a lot of the trees die that would leave a lot of organic material for other plants to grow on. I suspect the fungi might proliferate in the new climate. What kind of world do believe we might expect in one hundred years? If my prediction is correct — now might be a very good time to learn as much as possible about fungi. Many of them are very edible, and many of them are very poisonous.

            And give Malthus his due! I believe we are now close to the population limits as he predicted. Malthus could not predict the increased production of food and did not make any efforts along that line. I would hazard a guess that we would be unwise to expect another sudden increase in food production and I predict our populations would too soon increase to match the available food supplies.

            Based on the reviews of Deutsche’s book that I scanned I believe I am in agreement with his assertions that we still know very little and much progress can be made learning more. I most definitely do not equate progress with increasing GDP. I agree that “solutions have to be found” to the many problems humankind faces but I strongly disagree with your assertion “prophesy isn’t very helpful”. Predicting what might come will help very much in designing and building an umbrella if no umbrella presently exists.

            But again — what kind of world do believe we might expect in one hundred years? How could we adapt?

            1. Demented chimp

              Would read the book.

              Prophesy isn’t helpful if it prevents/ slows solutions or directs resources in non productive ways. Bonfire of the vanities comes to mind.

              Malthus is still wrong as Is Paul Erlich. Resource constraints only exist if won’t build new knowledge and everything stays the same. It doesn’t.

              Each new problem is somehow more imminent or critical even if we find solutions for the first 2nd third.

              Its in our hands whether we fail or succeed there is no hard limit based on resources.

              1. Jeremy Grimm

                I will carry my umbrella and you may wait for weather control and join me where there’s space under my umbrella while you wait. Doubtless we will discover ways to control the weather but time left before the rain falls wanes.

        1. Demented chimp

          The definition of Optimism I am referring to here is the the theory that all failures are due to a lack of knowledge. This is the key to the rational philosophy of the unknowable

    3. GraffitiGrammarian

      Please stop blaming “people.” Blame white males and their capitalist system that sees nature only as a resource to be pillaged, monetized and then discarded. The blame lies with the economic system that brooks no constraints, the economic system that supports, promotes and is defended relentlessly, in the face of all contradictory evidence, by WHITE MEN.

      I have spent my entire life trying to promote and defend nature. And guess what — nearly everyone I know who values nature is either female or a person of color.

      1. Demented chimp

        Agree blaming people is incorrect.

        Human beings are actually the solution not the problem. That sort of thinking misses the point entirely.

        Would recommend you could contribute more constructively by encouraging better systems and the growth of knowledge.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I am a white male and have as little or less agency in the ravaging of nature than you do. As for culpability, I think that might be much more difficult to fairly assign than your simple attribution to all “WHITE MEN”. As for efforts “to promote and defend nature” I can only suggest your judgment that “nearly everyone I know who values nature is either female or a person of color” reflects little but your own prejudices and your limited affiliations. Greed specially favors neither race nor gender.

        You should beware such generalizations as you make in your comment. When inverted they become remarkably similar to generalizations made in promoting a horrific eugenics program slightly less than a century ago.

  2. Kira

    So the USA is again the big problem…Sigh! You guys need to get your shit together unless tensions build up too much.

  3. neo-realist

    Many of us think in terms of “will I be affected by this directly.” Many of us who are in our 40’s and 50’s, e,g., working people, policy makers, and elites, will be dead by the time 2050 rolls around. Since many of them/us won’t see the worst, there may not be much impetus for change in how we use energy, particularly if it detrimentally impacts our bottom lines in the “pleasure principle” and profit maximization.

  4. Synoia

    I visited Shenzhen in China, an amazing new City full of residential skyscrapers, and home to more tower cranes I’ve ever seen assembled before.

    No birds. No sound of birds.

    1. Rates

      I live in San Francisco, and it’s pretty much the same with the exception of perhaps Golden Gate Park.

      In big cities, the only times people want to see birds is on the form of quails on their plates.

      1. Sara K.

        I live in San Francisco (and have spent most of my life in San Francisco) and there are still plenty of birds. In the past few days, I’ve seen quite a few hummingbirds, hawks, blue herons, ducks, scrub jays, Stellar’s jays, etc. To be fair, I do live near Golden Gate Park, but the backyards of the Sunset and Richmond Districts definitely have enough flowers to support hummingbirds even without without the park (and enough rodents to attract the hawks – I have spent enough time near Hawk Hill to assure you that it is an very appropriate name). Also, those loud flocks of parrots (related to the parrots of Telegraph Hill?) sometimes pass by.

        Heck, as I was writing this comment, I saw several birds flying by as I looked out the window (I didn’t see them clearly enough to identify them).

    2. jsn

      Yes, my one visit to China went to Hainan where by Chinese standards the air and water are clean. I visited an undeveloped 40 acre man made island and between the rides to and from the airport and to and from the island I didn’t see a single bird. I’ve scoured my pictures from the trip and can’t find any traces of birds.

    3. Massinissa

      I dont know if its true, but Ive heard the reason cities dont have birds in China is because the birds are eaten.

  5. Synoia

    When Gerald Durrell, author of “My family and Other Animals,” which is the basis of the TV show “Durrells in Corfu,” was interviewed after establishing his zoo in Jersey (A Channel island, not a US state), there was a discussion of a “Red Book” of endangered species.

    At that time (1960s?) the book was inches thick, and contained thousands of species.

    Has anything improved? I think not.

    The first step would be to ban pesticides. The second industrial farming. The third to prevent food waste. Or all simultaneously.

    1. Petter

      An approach that can be implemented right now its to pay farmers to put some of their land into conservation, the government paying them to keep their land out of production. It’s been one before. Have to pay the farmers enough though to make it worth their while.

  6. Rates

    The book Sixth Extinction is a good one to read if you want to see what other species have become extinct recently or undergoing the extinction process.

    Remember guys and girls. In order for this period to be the best ever, there are 2 necessary conditions:
    1. It has to be better than prior periods.
    2. It has to be better than upcoming periods.

    Do I get a prize for my logic?

  7. David

    Mother Nature is a better neoliberalist than you.

    In 2016 a giant squid had stranded on Bares beach in Spain. Sucker scares on the Bares specimen suggested a battle with another large cephalopod. The beak of the other animal might have produced the deep scratches in the skin.

    Scientists hypothesize that these wounds are the result of food piracy. When giant squids, which live in the deep and dark submarine canyons, notice the presence of the blue whiting schools, they ascend to waters between 250 and 600 m deep to feed, leading the presence of several giant squid of varying sizes in the vicinity of the shoal of fish. This strategy could involve excessive exposure to predators, mainly marine mammals; it is likely that having caught a fish they would retreat to a greater depth where protection is greater. When in the vicinity of a fish school, an individual giant squid may encounter other conspecifics feeding. Such a scenario could lead to competition between individuals and might also favor kleptoparasitism. The absence of tentacles, which are easily cut by traction, and the presence of marks on the skin of the Bares squid are consistent with such a scenario.

    From the Ecological Society of America,

    Food piracy, or kleptoparasitism, occurs across a broad range of taxonomic groups, although it has been described only once in cephalopods. We hypothesize that kleptoparasitism in the case of A. dux [giant squid] is a form of intraspecific aggression involved in food competition, rather than being related to the availability of many hosts feeding on large, high quality, visible food items, or periods of food shortage. Large concentrations of giant squid in the vicinity of a blue whiting shoal are unlikely and it is plausible that it is energetically less costly for a large squid to steal a fish from a smaller squid than to pursue the fish itself, especially if the fish is small relative to the size of the squid, provided that the risk of injury to the larger squid is small. Under these circumstances, kleptoparasitism would increase the net rate of energy intake and potentially reduce the duration of exposure to predators would and thus be favored by natural selection, as proposed by optimal foraging theory.

    Beak marks are a Goldman Sachs calling card.

  8. Steve H.

    I believe Disney bought Nat Geo after Murdoch got done masticating. Happy face on.

    I note India and China in the IPBES member list. This piece of classic art addresses their likely response to the Watson quote.

  9. RBHoughton

    Surprised to see aquaculture singled out for blame in Asia Pacific. Here in HK our fishermen take three months off every year in the summer to allow the fry to develop and stocks to recover.

    Its not a legislated thing – China asked the HK fishermen’s associations if they would join together to preserve the stocks and we agreed.

  10. christine

    Obviously, cut the population back. We can do this by mandatory birth control, massive die off due to disease, nuclear winter. The earth was last sustainable at 1.6 billion humans.

    Looks like the last two are the chosen options for humans. Only the Chinese were smart enough to go the first route and they were vilified for their serious efforts.

    Too many people; too much consumption, producing too much toxification and killing all other species. If we don’t go soon, we will go later. See The Collapse of Western Civilization pdf on the web. As Orestes says, humans took the population issue seriously too late.

    1. funemployed

      mandatory birth control is unnecessary. women who are educated or poor, and who also can make the decision for themselves, generally choose to, on average, have fewer than 2.1 kids.

      As usual with these posts, I feel obligated to point out that ubiquitous access to birth control and abortion is, hands down by a mile, the most cost effective and easily implemented strategy to mitigate human caused ecosystem destruction, yet is somehow, for some reason, almost always left out of these sorts of studies/articles/white papers.

  11. Bradley Cunningham

    It is completely absurd to talk about this subject without one word concerning the root causes of much of our negative impacts on our planet. Nibbling away piecemeal at the effects of human mismanagement can and does improve things marginally but, without tackling the economic and political enablers of large scale destruction of our ecosystems, they are little but band-aids which, as we are witnessing currently in the United States, can be all too easily ripped off.

  12. rd

    Ironically cities are becoming a key focus of maintaining bio-diversity as small plots and many gardeners provide a high diversity of plants and habitat:

    Some of the major culprits that are greatly damaging bio-diversity include: industrial agriculture (including monocultures, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff), suburbs (large lawns and asphalt replacing diverse habitat), and industrialized over-fishing.

    Climate change is a good polishing step to finish off populations, but it is generally other activities that made those populations susceptible to extinction in the first place.

  13. Tyronius

    I recommend reading ‘Collapse’ by Dr Jared Diamond.

    The example of Easter Island is particularly germane; we can either destroy our resources in an effort to dominate one another and thereby destroy our entire habitat or we can make the commitment to do whatever it takes to avoid that fate. There is no middle ground.

    The only difference between the Easter Islanders and today’s global civilisation is that we now have the ability to destroy the entire planet, leaving nothing and no place from which to mount a comeback.

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