Major Report Paints Grim Picture of Biodiversity

But the extensive new data provides the tools to turn things around

By Jason Daley

April 7, 2018


Photo by CarGe/iStock

Last month the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released the first summaries of five reports on global biodiversity, outlining the current state of plants, animal, and land health across the globe. A series of science reports may sound like a dry, academic exercise—and to some extent they are—but this massive work involving 550 authors from 100 countries compiled over three years is a major event in the history of conservation. For the first time, baseline hard science data on biodiversity has been gathered and analyzed in one place. The goal is to give policy makers, conservationists, industry, and the public the information they need to save the biodiversity that’s left and to restore what humanity has broken. 

Most people with an eye on environmental causes have heard of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations charters that Nobel-prize winning group to produce the best science possible to help policy makers set goals and negotiate climate agreements like the Paris Accords. IPBES, established in 2012 and also administered under the U.N., is the biodiversity version of that group. Its mandate is to produce science to help policy makers develop new biodiversity treaties, preserve endangered species, and decide on areas for preservation, including wetlands, marine reserves, and tropical forests. It’s first report, an assessment of pollinators and their impact on food production across the globe, has already helped spawn a Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators—a small but growing group of countries dedicated to support pollinators. 

The newest reports, which will be officially published later this year, include four regional biodiversity assessments covering the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, Africa, Europe, and Central Asia. A fifth report looks at the extent of land degradation across the globe. As expected, the assessments are pretty grim. 

By 2100, for example, if current land use practices continue, Africa could lose half of its bird and mammal species. The population of the continent is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050, adding to the 500,000 square kilometers of land degraded by human activity so far. In Asia and the Pacific, there are similar concerns. If overfishing and marine habitat destruction aren’t curtailed, there will be no commercially harvestable fish stocks in the region by 2048. Climate change will degrade 90 percent of corals in the region over the same time period. On land, invasive species threaten sensitive alpine habitats, wetlands, and forests. Increased farming and pesticide use are also changing the landscape.

In Europe and central Asia, the continued use and expansion of traditional agriculture practices is slowly but surely degrading land and habitat. More than 66 percent of habitat types in the region have an “unfavorable conservation status,” meaning they aren’t doing well. In the Americas, the population of animals is 31 percent less than at the time of European settlement and will reach 40 percent by 2050. Climate change will soon become the main driver of biodiversity loss in the region exacerbating the effects of habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and overconsumption of resources. 

The global land degradation is the fulcrum of the report: less than 25 percent of the Earth’s surface has escaped major human impact, and if things continue that will drop to less than 10 percent by 2050. Wetlands have been hardest hit with 87 percent drained or degraded in the modern era.

There is still room for hope however; the assessments highlight some successes as models for change. For instance, moves by some African governments to save and recover endangered species over recent decades have shown positive results. In Asia, where many nations have seen rapid economic growth, many have also been able to increase protections for forested habitat. “Although there are no ‘silver bullets’ or ‘one-size-fits all’ answers, the best options in all four regional assessments are found in better governance, integrating biodiversity concerns into sectoral policies and practices (e.g. agriculture and energy), the application of scientific knowledge and technology, increased awareness, and behavioral changes,” Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES, said in a statement.

Kai Chan, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, who is working on an IPBES global assessment due out in 2019, says that the regional reports are dismaying. But having this type of knowledge is the first step to formulating plans and policies to bring us back from the brink. “There is a turning back; it’s not too late. Nobody should be surprised we’re having a massive impact on nature based on the size of the human enterprise,” he says. “We are definitely in the Anthropocene era. That said, there are lots of things we can do to make the fate of nature better or worse.” 

Dr. James Watson, Director of the Science and Research Initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was not involved in the current assessments, says this data is exactly what policy makers and conservationists need right now. The big-data science is so cutting edge, the tools to create such a report weren’t even available just a few years ago. “I think, frankly, this is one of the few reports which is taking in all the global data, which is getting immense at this point. Even five years ago this amount of information was impossible to see and analyze,” he says. “The IPBES is telling the truth in the way IPCC is telling the truth. It frames the problem in a realistic way. We have never really known how much trouble biodiversity is in and this will allow us to make decisions around that.”

What’s more it’s going to allow decision makers and scientists to make meaningful policies, not just guesses as to what may help safeguard biodiversity. “The reports show there’s still a chance for nature,” he says. “Now we know all the pieces on the chess board and how to play the game. Five years ago we didn’t have the data to take our case to policy makers. That’s where the hope is.”

The problem that the scientists face, similar to what the IPCC faces, is the involvement of politics. No matter how good the science is, it will take strong support and political will to make the massive changes needed to safeguard biodiversity. “People may look back at this time as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction, or maybe they won’t,” Chan says. “The difference is what we can do if we set our minds to it versus what happens if we fumble along like we have been. Things are dire, but it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.”