A new sweeping and first-ever global report on biodiversity has summed up the irreversible nature of human damage and the threats it poses to life on Earth with an astute statistic: nearly 1 million plant and animal species are facing extinction today. And a large portion of the blame falls on global capitalism.
To compare, only 300 mammal species have disappeared since the last ice age 130,000 years ago; humans have been around for about 200,000 years. It takes 3 to 7 million years for evolution to generate 300 new species, but the damage we have caused will outlive our species.
Face to face with a catastrophic biodiversity crisis
On Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) teased the upcoming 1,500-page report on the state of terrestrial biodiversity, as momentum for climate justice and emergency gathers across the globe.
Put together by 145 authors from 50 countries, the Global Assessment Report sums up about 15,000 scientific papers to conclude that species of all kinds—mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, plants, marine life, and terrestrial life—are disappearing at a rate “tens to hundreds times higher than the average over the last 10 million years” due to human activity.
Close to 40% of all amphibian species, 33% of corals, and around 10% of insects are now at risk of extinction, threatening a multitude of ecosystems across the world, says a summary of the analysis released on May 6.
The findings also corroborate another recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which put the rate of decline of vertebrate population at 60% since the 1970s.
Why is the report crucial?
The IPBES report is the first major international appraisal of biodiversity since 2005. Representatives of 132 governments met last week in Paris to finalise and approve the analysis.
According to The Conversation, “IPBES aims to arm policymakers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.”
The findings of the report are expected to set the tone for the UN Convention on Biodiversity in China next year, where the global body is keen on setting new decade-long goals to preserve biodiversity. Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate.
“We have never had a single unified statement from the world’s governments that unambiguously makes clear the crisis we are facing for life on Earth,” says Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland, who helped to edit the biodiversity analysis. “That is really the absolutely key novelty that we see here,” he tells Nature journal.
What’s driving this death of natural history?
Changes in land and sea use is an enormous factor in the looming biodiversity crisis, says the most comprehensive report yet on the state of global ecosystems. About 75% of land and 66% of ocean areas have been “significantly altered” by people, driven in large part by the production of food, according to the IPBES report.
As more natural habitat is being torn down or encroached upon for industrial, infrastructure, development or urban projects, the fragile system that sustains ecological balance is also shaken. But agricultural activities, including use of fertilisers, raising of livestock and logging, have had the largest impact on ecosystems that people depend on for food, clean water, and a stable climate, according to the analysis.
To meet the rising demand for food, sustainable alternatives and innovations must supplant the need to expand cultivation, instead of turning forests into farmlands and slaughtering animals indiscriminately, especially endangered ones.
A biodiversity crisis necessarily spells a food crisis, experts have noted, which would, in turn, undermine global efforts to reduce poverty and hunger and achieve sustainable development goals.
Then, there are politically and capitally motivated efforts to oust traditional indigenous communities from lands they have guarded and grown on for centuries. This issue is intricately linked to another determinant of flailing biodiversity.
Indigenous cultures and nomadic traditions that use land in a more sustainable way and preserve ecological balance are being sacrificed at the altar of corporate interests when they are ousted from forests that have historically been their home. The IPBES report finds that the rate of decline in biodiversity is lower in areas where indigenous people own land.
“The areas managed (under various types of tenure and access regimes) by indigenous people and local communities are facing growing resource extraction, commodity production, mining and transport and energy infrastructure, with various consequences for local livelihoods and health,” reads the report, further noting that even some climate change mitigation programmes have had negative impacts on these lands.
Hunting, fishing, and poaching animals for sport or monetary gains is another chief reason for flailing biodiversity. Today, however, indirect killing of endangered species, via human-led acceleration of global warming and plastic pollution, is a greater threat to wildlife.
Polar bears, penguins and whales are now accompanied by giraffes, foxes, cats, rhinoceroses, and lemurs on the list of animals facing extinction due to melting waters, reducing habitats, oil spills, and plastic waste disposal into oceans. An estimated 5% of all species would be threatened with extinction by 2 °C of warming above pre-industrial levels—a threshold that the world could breach in the next few decades, unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced.
Spread of invasive species, who migrate in search of food owing to depleting resources in their original habitat, is also going to change the fabric of ecosystems as the struggle for food turns into a competition for survival.
A monumental task for a monumental cause
Since we didn’t get here in a day, it is going to take more than individual efforts to restore a semblance of ecological balance for life to continue beyond the deadline set by the IPCC last year.
Instead of cutting down more trees, existing forested areas must be protected; use and disposal of plastic must be reduced with punitive measures; alternatives to fossil fuels must become the mainstream energy source; policies that aim to reduce carbon footprint, like heightened taxes, on coal industries must be globally adopted.
Of course, this is easier said than done when superpowers like the US refuse to acknowledge the need to declare a climate emergency, as the UK parliament has commendably done last month. US scepticism and pressure, in fact, blocked a joint declaration on climate change at the Arctic Talks. Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced it was time to recognise the vast potential and opportunities for trade and mining in the melting Arctics.
What India is doing vs. what it can do
Another example of how not to act during a climate emergency is being set by India, which houses six of the world’s 10 most polluted cities and is yet unperturbed by its role in averting a global biodiversity disaster.
Despite undergoing volatile changes in weather patterns, frequent tropical hurricanes and coastal floods, the nation of billions does not regard pro-environment policies as a crucial poll agenda. Instead, environment minister Harsh Vardhan recently discredited the recent global reports claiming over one million deaths in India due to air pollution, saying such studies are only aimed at “causing panic”.
“Regarding the high-profile data of millions of deaths, I do not agree with that because pollution can cause premature illness and other things. Pollution does affect health, but to create such a panicky situation and say millions of people are dying, I do not agree with that,” the BJP leader said in an interview with PTI.
Although climate figures in the manifesto of several parties in the ongoing national elections, it is not enough. That is apparent from the state of the country’s natural habitats and wildlife.
According to The Wire, more than 80% of the Clean Ganga Fund has not been spent, over the five years of its existence. The latest biodiversity report also predicts that climate change and rising sea levels will wipe out one of the world’s last and largest tiger strongholds in the Sundarbans — 4,000 square miles of mangroves in India and Bangladesh that supports a rich ecosystem of several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger. Nearly 70 per cent of the land is just a few feet above sea level right now.
The Indian government recently greenlit the scrapping of 131.3 hectares of forest area, including the mangroves of Palghar, for a multi-billion dollar bullet train project in Gujarat and Maharashtra, despite ongoing agitations by farmers and tribal communities.
Earlier this year, the top court ordered the eviction of over a million forest dwellers on grounds that they didn’t have proper land records, and in response to a wildlife conservationist’s petition claiming they destroy ecological balance. The sections of the IPBES report pertaining to the ecological benefits of indigenous communities will make it a crucial document in the ongoing Supreme Court case against the Forest Rights Act.
History has documented how Indian civilisations have sustained and thrived because of their symbiotic relationship with nature; that understanding of nature must be called forth and instilled into tech innovations, sustainable entrepreneurship, and proactive policymaking today. A concerted effort must be made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in metropolitan cities, and farmers must be supported and equipped to produce food in a sustainable manner.
On the brink of the only home we have
The UN-backed report explicitly states “goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories”.
Economic instruments that may be harmful to nature include subsidies, financial transfers, subsidised credit, tax abatements, and commodity and industrial goods prices that hide environmental and social costs, which favour unsustainable production and, as a consequence, can promote deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, and wasteful uses of water, reads the 40-page summary of the report meant for lawmakers. The first step, therefore, is to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide,” says IPBES chair Robert Watson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
The report warns that without drastic action and transformative changes to the world’s legal, economic, social, and political systems, the rate of disappearing species will only increase. But for the report to be effective outside of paper, IPBES can and must develop partnerships with governments and communities, and assess policies that can be implemented at local and national levels. That would be a worthy segue from Extinction Rebellion‘s admirable effort to bring agenda-setting to the streets.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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