Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The world has a staggering number of species. But many are going extinct. It's not too late to reverse the trend, scientists warn.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Life on Earth Is Under Assault—But There’s Still Hope

A major international report on biodiversity warns of serious threats to all living things, but many solutions are available.

The Earth’s life support system is failing. Nearly everywhere, the various forms of non-human life are in decline, according to a series of landmark international reports released Thursday in Medellin, Colombia. This ongoing decline endangers economies, livelihoods, food security, and the quality of life of people everywhere. But at the same time, there is considerable room for hope, based on many solutions with proven track records, the reports say.

The tremendous variety of living species—collectively known as biodiversity—forms the bedrock of our food, clean water, air and energy. “Biodiversity is at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities, and enjoyment of life,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

IPBES is the intergovermental group working to safeguard the world’s biodiversity. For the past three years, more than 550 leading experts from more than 100 countries have reviewed more than 10,000 studies and completed four regional scientific assessments of biodiversity—covering the entire planet except the poles and open oceans. These assessments also looked at the causes of biodiversity declines and how government policies could help slow them down and even reverse them. The reports were approved in a final plenary meeting Thurday by the 129 countries that are members to IPBES.

Related: See How Marine Reserves Protect Biodiversity

“There is no question the continued loss of biodiversity undermines human well-being. Everyone will suffer, but especially the poor,” Watson said in an interview.

These losses are driven mainly by unsustainable consumption of resources, including deforestation and expansion of agriculture, along with pollution, climate change, and impacts of invasive alien species.

One of the studies in the assessment, published in the journal Science, found that 58 percent of Earth's land surface—where 71 percent of all humans live—has already lost enough biodiversity "to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies.”

But the IPBES assessment also documents conservation success stories and identifies key strategies that can be applied elsewhere.

Global Threats

The Americas are home to 40 percent of global nature today, but they have experienced significant declines since Western colonization. If Christopher Columbus were to come to the Americas today, he would find 30 percent less biodiversity than in 1492. Today, another 23 to 24 percent of the region’s species are currently at risk of extinction, said Jake Rice, co-chair of the Americas assessment. That threatens nature’s land-based contributions to the peoples of the Americas, which is estimated to be worth more than $24 trillion per year. That’s equivalent to the region’s GDP, said Rice.

Expansion of agriculture, deforestation, resource extraction, pollution, and increasing urbanization are driving these declines. The people of the Americas consume three times as much of nature’s services as the global average, the assessment found. Changing this unsustainable rate of consumption will require fundamental changes in how we live, Rice said.

“We keep making choices to borrow from the future to live well today,” said Rice. “We don’t need to make those choices.”

We need to eat a more balanced diet, with less meat and less food waste, to take pressure off biodiversity, said Watson. We also need to choose to be more efficient in our water use, particularly in agriculture, and reduce our use of toxic chemicals. We have to drastically cut fossil-fuel use by using more mass transit, electric vehicles, and increasing energy efficiency, because climate change impacts biodiversity, the report notes. Without cuts to fossil fuel consumption, climate change will have as big an impact on biodiversity declines as land use change by 2050.

Public Involvement

“As citizens, we need to vote and lobby for political leaders and policies that support these choices,” said Emma Archer of South Africa, co-chair of the African assessment.

Africa is the last place on Earth with a wide range of large mammals, but some 190,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) of land is badly degraded by overexploitation. More pressure is coming as the number of people on the continent is expected to double, from 1.25 billion to 2.5 billion, by 2050. Today’s threats include poaching, unplanned urbanization, and agricultural expansion. By 2100, climate change could lead to the loss of more than half of African bird and mammal species, the report concluded.

At the same time, some of Africa’s threatened species have recovered or at least stabilized, thanks to efforts involving local communities. “The question is how to expand this, and how to enable all of us to live with nature,” said Archer.

It is clear that indigenous and local knowledge can be an invaluable asset in helping us learn to live with nature, said Watson. He added that biodiversity issues also need to receive much higher priority in policy making and development planning at every level. Cross-border collaboration is also essential, given that biodiversity challenges recognize no national boundaries.

“We know what we need to do,” he said. “There is no reason to not act now.”