Biodiversity in Danger

Of the various environmental problems, the loss of biodiversity is the most serious one, the greatest threat to world stability and security today 

Two days earlier (on May 22nd) we celebrated the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB). It is a United Nations-sanctioned international day for the promotion of biodiversity issues marked every year. The main aim of celebrating this day is to make people aware about the vital importance of biodiversity on one hand and its unprecedented loss on the other hand, so as to refocus our attention and reaffirm the endeavor to promote its conservation and sustainable use. Each year a specific theme related to biodiversity is chosen by the United Nations to lay focus on. The theme for 2019 is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health”. This year’s theme is relevant because both food and health are dependent on biodiversity and there is need to spread awareness about changing our homogenized food systems and improve human health.

While we celebrate the World Biodiversity Day, it would be pertinent to have a look on the new IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This is because the Report is alarming and its knowledge may help us realize comprehending the factors responsible for the increase in current unprecedented loss of biodiversity and the urgency to take steps to address to it. This report, besides corroborating the findings on biodiversity previously made known by organizations and entities like IUCN, CBD, UNEP, WWF, WHO, FAO, UNESCO, and UNICEF, covers many additional issues in its studies that are relevant to and important in biodiversity and ecosystem analyses, and also useful to policymakers and all others interested in the field.

IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body comprising more than 130 member Governments. Established 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 the tools and methods to protect and sustainably use these vital natural assets. Its Global Assessment Report is the most comprehensive assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from other 310 contributing authors. The Report asserts that the nature is facing dangerous decline and that the unprecedented species extinction rates are accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world. The health of ecosystems is deteriorating more rapidly than ever, and around one million species of animals and plants are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

The Summary of the Report was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary meeting held 29 April – 4 May 2019 in Paris, and released on May 6, 2019. The full 6-chapter Report is expected to exceed 1,500 pages and will be published later this year. The Summary presents the key messages and policy options. The notable findings of the Report include:

             General

•             75% terrestrial and 66% marine environments are “severely altered” till now by human actions.

•             +/- 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted globally each year, up nearly by 100% since 1980.

•             15% increase in the global per capita consumption of materials since 1980.

•             >85% of wetlands present in 1700 have been lost by 2000; wetland loss is currently thrice more in percentage than forest loss.

             Species, Populations and Varieties of Plants and Animals

•             The extent of current rate of global species extinction is 10s to 100s of times higher compared to average over the last 10 million years, and the rate is accelerating.

•             Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

•             >500,000 of the worlds estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival without habitat restoration.

•             > 40% amphibian species are threatened with extinction.

•             Almost 33% reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and >33% marine mammals are threatened with extinction.

•             25% average proportion of species are threatened with extinction across terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups that have been studied in sufficient detail.

•             A least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction by human actions since the 16th century.

•             >20% decline in average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes, mostly since 1900; around 560 domesticated breeds of mammals were extinct by 2016, with at least 1000 more threatened.

•             3.5% domesticated breed of birds were extinct by 2016.

•             70% increase since 1970 in numbers of invasive alien species across 21 countries with detailed records.

             Food and Agriculture

•             300% increase in food crop production since 1970.

•             23% land races have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation.

•             >75% global food crop types rely on animal pollination; but US$235 to US$ 577 billion annual value of global crop output is at risk due to pollinator loss.

•             5.6 gigatons of annual CO2 emissions are sequestered in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, equivalent to 60% of global fossil fuel emission.

•             +/- 11% world population is undernourished.

•             100 million hectares of agricultural expansion in the tropics from 1980 to 2000.

             Oceans and fishing

•             >55% ocean area is covered by industrial fishing.

•             3-10% decrease is projected in ocean net primary production due to climate change alone by the end of the century.

•             +/-50% of live coral cover of reefs lost since 1870s.

•             100-300 million people in coastal areas are at increased risk due to loss of coastal habitat protection.

             Forests

•             45% increase in raw timber production since 1970.

•             50% agricultural expansion has occurred at the expense of forests.

•             68% global forest area today compared with the estimated pre-industrial level.

•             7% reduction in intact forests from 2000-2013 in both developed and developing countries.

•             290 million ha (+/-6%) of native forest cover lost from 1990-2015 due to clearing and wood harvesting.

•             >2 billion people rely on wood fuel to meet their primary energy needs.

             Urbanization, Development and Population

•             >100% growth of urban areas since 1992.

•             25 million km length of new paved roads foreseen by 2050, with 90% of construction in least developed and underdeveloped countries.

•             105% increase in global human population (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion) since 1970 unevenly across countries and regions.

             Health

•             +/- 4 billion people rely primarily on natural medicines.

•             70% of cancer drugs that are natural or synthetic products are inspired by nature.

•             +/- 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa.

•             40% of global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.

•             100% increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1980, raising average global temperature by at least 0.7 oC.

•             >80% global wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.

•             300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.

•             10 times increase in plastic pollution since 1980.

All the above and other issues in the Report have a direct or indirect influence on biodiversity and accelerate tremendously its loss, telling upon ecosystem functioning and health. Thus, there is a very serious biodiversity crisis. Scientific evidences clearly highlight the disturbing fact that the Earth is in the midst of unprecedented loss of biodiversity, being 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. Of the various environmental problems, the loss of biodiversity is the most serious one, the greatest threat to world stability and security today. 

Footprints of climate change on the biodiversity are already quite visible. In the Swiss Alps, plant species have been migrating upwards by 1-4 m per decade. Some plants previously found only on the mountaintops have disappeared. Most of the world’s endangered species may become extinct over the next few decades as climate change conditions alter the forest, grassland and wetland ecosystems. Over the last three decades, the loss of biodiversity has emerged as an issue of global concern. The Rio Earth Summit (1992), under the aegis of UNEP, was the first global-scale event that ascended biodiversity to the status of a global issue. It led to the CBD that has provided the international institutional framework for the countries to deal with issues related to biodiversity. Now, all the member countries have formulated their own National Biodiversity Action Plans. In India, a new legislation under the Indian Biodiversity Act, 2002 has come into force.

Future concerns:

So what should be our response? IPBES Chair – Sir Robert Watson – emphasized that the current global response is insufficient; transformative changes are needed to restore and conserve nature; and that opposition from vested interests can be overcome for larger public good. By transformative change is meant a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.

Big challenges also force us to search for solutions. Only those nations will succeed who have the capacity, both institutional and human, to manage biodiversity in the sustainable way. Biodiversity is a crisis discipline that needs a response of an efficient crisis management. The issues of biodiversity loss are not a matter best left only to academic debates and research topics. It should be everybody’s concern, because biodiversity sustains the life on the planet Earth. Precious the conservation of biodiversity is for the human survival, the perilous the loss of biodiversity is for human existence!

In conclusion, the international events such as International Day for Biodiversity and UN Decade on Biodiversity remind all the stakeholders involved to pledge using all our knowledge, vision and wisdom in proper care of biodiversity, so as to ensure its judicious and sustainable use and conservation for generations to come.“We can no longer see the continued loss of biodiversity as an issue separate from the core concerns of society: to tackle poverty, to improve the health, prosperity and security of present and future generations, and to deal with climate change. Each of those objectives is undermined by current trends in the state of our ecosystems, and each will be greatly strengthened if we finally give biodiversity the priority it deserves”. [CBD’s ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook 3’ report].

(The author is Former Head Department of Botany, University of Kashmir)