As a result of human activity, one million animal and plant species could disappear in the next few decades – the most that have ever been at risk in human history.
Only a large-scale reimagining of the world’s economic and financial systems can limit the damage done by humans, according to a new report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Human activity has “significantly altered” 75% of our planet’s land and 66% of the ocean. As the human population has increased, more than a third of the land surface and 75% of freshwater resources is now used to grow food. Urban areas have doubled in size since 1992.
Since 1980, plastic pollution has grown by tenfold and humans now pump 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities into our ocean and waterways every year.
The sheer amount of waste we dump in the water has created 400 dead zones in the ocean, areas with so little oxygen almost no life survives.
Intensive industrial agriculture and over-fishing are particular culprits in the natural world’s decline.
Dominic Waughray, Head of the Centre for Global Public Goods at the World Economic Forum, said the report was a wake-up call for governments and businesses.
“The science is clear that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction and we cannot continue with business as usual. The interconnections between the global food system, ecosystems and natural resources, climate change, and people’s health and livelihoods are deeply rooted.”
The solution, Waughray said, is a wave of innovation across industries, especially within global supply chains.
“But time is running out – to develop these innovations and scale them up at the speed required we will need governments, businesses, investors, scientists, and community groups to work together in radical cooperation.”
The Global Assessment is one of the largest and most comprehensive reports of its kind: compiled by 145 authors from 50 countries, it assesses the changes in nature for the past 50 years.
The report ranks the five most important factors in the degradation of the natural world to date. Changes in land and sea use are the most damaging, with our direct exploitation of organisms second, climate change third, pollution fourth and the impact of invasive alien species fifth.
The bleak picture that emerges fits into the pattern of a world sliding towards climate catastrophe.
Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled and average global temperatures have risen by at least 0.7℃.
These trends are already affecting day-to-day life across the globe. From record heat to wild storms, extreme weather – which climate change makes more likely – has swept around the world in recent months.
Elsewhere researchers have sounded the alarm over falling insect numbers: 40% of the world’s insect species are currently at risk, threatening the planet’s ecosystems and crops.
Meanwhile, soil erosion is destroying a football field’s worth of crop production every five seconds, according to the FAO.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 put failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation at number 2 in the top 10 Global Risks by likelihood and by impact. Other environmental risks, including biodiversity loss, dominate the top 10.
Despite the overwhelmingly negative findings in the report, its authors think there is still hope. But only if we are prepared to change everything about our relationship between us and the planet.
As Sir Robert Watson, the Chair of IPBES, explains:
“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.”
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