We Must Live On Earth Differently: IPBES Report Sounds Planetary Alarm Bell

PARIS, France

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has completed its three-year review of the effect of modern civilization on natural world, publishing its long-anticipated assessment May 6. The findings present an ominous picture of the planet's health.

Often described as the “IPCC for biodiversity”, IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body comprising more than 130 member Governments. Established by Governments in 2012, it provides policymakers with objective scientific assessments about the state of knowledge regarding the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems and the contributions they make to people, as well as tools and methods to protect and sustainably use these vital natural assets.

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the first of its kind and the most comprehensive ever completed. With participation from over 450 expert contributors from about 50 countries, including input from indigenous and local communities, the report presents a comprehensive assessment of the relationship between economic development and its impact on nature over the past 50 years, also suggesting a range of possible future scenarios.

The authors ranked the direct drivers of the change with the largest global impacts so far with the chied culprits, 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 presents an illustrative list of possible actions and pathways for achieving them across locations, systems and scales, which will be most likely to support sustainability.

Regarding freshwater systems, policy options and actions include, among others: more inclusive water governance for collaborative water management and greater equity; better integration of water resource management and landscape planning across scales; promoting practices to reduce soil erosion, sedimentation and pollution run-off; increasing water storage; promoting investment in water projects with clear sustainability criteria; as well as addressing the fragmentation of many freshwater policies.

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to an average global temperature increase of at least 0.7 degrees Celsius. With climate change already impacting both ecosystems and genetics, these changes are expected to increase in coming years.

Current conservation measures and policy implementation are not enough to meet current goals for 2030 and beyond, requiring transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.

Importantly, 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:

  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Report offers cross-sectoral illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them. It highlights the importance of, among others, 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.
  • More sustainable future policies are dependent on the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

“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.”

About one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. On average, the abundance of native species in most land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since the beginning of the 20thCentury. In the marine environment, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and 33 percent of mammals are threatened. Available evidence suggests that about 10 percent of insect species are threatened.

Notably, almost 700 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction since the 16thCentury, with 1,000 more breeds of domesticated mammals used for food and agriculture under threat.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said co-chairman Prof. Josef Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

“This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity", said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO. "Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently".

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