New study shows human development is destroying the planet at an unprecedented rate

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“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

That’s the word from Sir Robert Watson, the chair of a massive multinational research effort to survey the impact of human development on the natural world.

In the most comprehensive effort undertaken to date, some 145 expert authors from 50 countries working with another 310 contributing authors spent the last three years compiling and assessing changes in global biodiversity over a 50-year period for a study conducted under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

They found there are now 1 million species that are threatened with extinction; that more than one-third of the world’s land surface and 75% of all freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production; that 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted globally every year; that land degradation has reduced the productivity of global land surface area by 23% and roughly $577 billion worth of crops are at risk from pollinator loss annually; and, finally, that up to 300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of the loss of coastal habitats.

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said Watson in a statement. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.”

Ultimately, Watson says that the world needs to adopt something akin to a Green New Deal to reverse course and protect the planet and its inhabitants from catastrophic destruction caused by humanity’s development.

“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,” Watson said in a statement.

The report was culled from 15,000 scientific and government sources as well as indigenous and local knowledge, according to the study’s authors.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

The abundance of native species on land has fallen by 20%, with the losses coming in the last hundred years. Currently 40% of amphibians, 33% of coral and a third of all marine mammals are threatened with extinction, while 10% of insects and 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had gone extinct by 2016. Another 1,000 breeds of animals are currently threatened.

“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 Settele, in a statement. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The main causes of these changes to plant and animal life are increased usage of land and sea for cultivation and food production; exploitation of animal life for human industry; climate change; pollution; and inter-species competition with a foreign species.

These findings on biodiversity have broad repercussions well beyond the threat of mass extinction of several species. They will also impact the ability for nations to alleviate problems of poverty, hunger, clean water access, urban development, climate change mitigation and sustainable land use, according to the report.

“To better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them,” said Prof. Brondízio. “Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability.”

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