A MAJOR new United Nations scientific report has warned that one million species were under threat of extinction and that land, seas and skies were exposed to the destructive impact of humans.
The report was released on May 6, just a few days after Pope Francis offered a critique of capitalism’s “disastrous” impact on the environment, calling for a response that hears “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”.
“Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to (…) the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment,” Pope Francis said speaking to mining executives from around the globe at a conference entitled Mining for the Common Good.
The UN report, the work of 150 scientists from 50 countries, predicted dire consequences for planet Earth unless immediate, remedial action is taken.
“The evidence is incontestable. Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our well-being at least as much as human-induced climate change,” British Professor Robert Watson said, summarising the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
The report contains advice for politicians and individuals – and it is implied that action at the polling booths was one way to enact the change needed to sustain the planet.
The report says that while the Earth has always suffered from the actions of humans, the past 50 years has left deep scars.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Prof Watson said.
The report found 25 per cent of mammals, more than 40 per cent of amphibian species, nearly 33 per cent of sharks and 25 per cent of plant groups were threatened with extinction.
Based on this, the researchers predict one million animal and plant species could die out, many “within decades”.
Preventing this is vital to saving ourselves, the report says, explaining the primary reason for the destruction of habitats is man’s expansion of farms and cities – land use that has left less room for wildlife.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” one of the report’s authors Josef Settele said.
“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 report tallies with the sentiments of Pope Francis as he spoke to mining industry executives from across the globe attending the “Mining for the Common Good” conference.
“We need a paradigm shift in all our economic activities, including mining,” he said.
“Mining, like all economic activities, should be at the service of the entire human community.”
The Pope stressed the importance of assessing the impact of mining projects on local communities.
Besides humanity’s ruinous land use, the UN report highlights other major causes of destruction – the exploitation of wildlife such as hunting; climate change; pollution; and the spread of invasive species. Climate change is set to become ever more destructive.
Humanity’s ravenous appetites are producing a mountain of waste, with plastic pollution increasing ten-fold since 1980.
Every year 300-400 million tonnes of waste – from heavy metals to toxic sludge – are dumped into waterways and oceans.
The report is designed to guide policymakers on conservation and sustainability decisions, and states that “urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change” are necessary to halt or reverse the alarming declines in biodiversity.
Prof Watson said although climate change issues tended to be highlighted, it was also necessary for governments to focus on preserving biodiversity.
“Loss of biodiversity is just as important as climate change for the future of mankind,” he said.
“The two are highly coupled. You can’t deal with climate change without dealing with biodiversity.”
The assessment highlighted the need to adopt sustainable agriculture, forestry and land-use practices.
Fish are being exploited as never before, with 33 per cent of fish stocks harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015.
Live coral cover on reefs has nearly halved over the past 150 years.
Prof Watson and the panel of scientists who authored the report advocated transformative action, starting with expanding protected areas to shield species and to allow ecosystems to recover.
“We need to secure half of the planet by 2050 with an interim target of 30 per cent by 2030,” scientist Jonathan Baillie, from the National Geographic Society, said.
“Then we must restore nature and drive innovation. Only then will we leave future generations a healthy and sustainable planet.”
The scientists suggested governments needed to move away from GDP (gross domestic product) as a key measure of economic wealth and instead adopt more holistic measures that would reflect quality of life and long-term effects.
They argue that our traditional notion of a “good quality of life” has involved increasing consumption on every level – this now has to change.
Similarly, there must be change when it comes to financial incentives that damage biodiversity.
“Crucially, governments must end the destructive subsidies, including for fossil fuels and industrial fishing and agriculture,” the director of the International Institute for Environment and Development Andrew Norton said.
Transformative action isn’t just for governments, it is up to individuals too, according to the report.
“We know that the way people eat today is often unhealthy for them and for the planet,” one of the report’s authors Dr Kate Brauman said.
“We can become healthier as individuals by eating more diverse diets, with more vegetables, and we can also make the planet healthier by growing that food in more sustainable ways.”
Other authors believe people can make a difference through politics.
“It might be more important for society to invest more in renewables than coal,” Dr Rinku Roy Chowdhury, from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said.
“So how do you that? Through individual behaviour, through the polling booth.”
Despite the dire predictions, John Wiens, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, said scientists were sanguine about the chances of planet earth to recover.
“It’s not too late – there’s a 10- or 20-year window in which we can still do something,” Prof Wiens said.
“In the end, all it takes is will. If we decide we want to solve it, we can solve it.”