The Biodiversity Crisis

1 Million species threatened with extinction

Last month the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a landmark new report IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report begins with these headlines:

  • Nature’s dangerous decline ‘Unprecedented’
  • Species extinction rates ‘Accelerating’
  • ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature
  • Opposition from vested interests can be overcome by public good
  • 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction

Following several years of preliminary meetings, IPBES was ‘established’ in 2012. The IPBES report was produced in response to an invitation from the Conference of the Parties, Convention on Biological Diversity to prepare a global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services, “focusing on status and trends, the impact of biodiversity and ecosystem services on human well-being, and the effectiveness of responses, including the Strategic Plan and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets”. The 20 targets can be found at https://www.cbd.int/sp/targets.

The report finds that nature is deteriorating worldwide and biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history.

It would be of no surprise to most people that nature across the globe has been significantly altered by human activities. Seventy- five per cent of the land surface is significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of the area of wetlands has been lost. Across much of the highly biodiverse tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost between 2010 and 2015.

The authors find that human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. They estimate that around 25 per cent of animal and plant species are threatened, indicating that around one million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce impacts. The authors conclude that without such action there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

The report provides statistics to support their conclusion. More than 40 per cent of amphibian species, almost a third of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives and over a third of marine mammals are currently threatened. The proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is a key uncertainty, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 per cent. Those proportions suggest that, of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species (75% of which are insects), around 1 million are threatened with extinction. A similar picture also emerges from an entirely separate line of evidence. Habitat loss and deterioration, largely caused by human actions, have reduced global terrestrial habitat integrity by 30 per cent relative to an unimpacted baseline; combining that with the longstanding relationship between habitat area and species numbers suggests that around 9 per cent of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species – more than 500,000 species – have insufficient habitat for long-term survival, are committed to extinction, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored.

Ecosystem structure

A critical conclusion from the IPBES report is that goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.

Climate change is, and will continue to be, a significant contributor to biodiversity loss. As noted in the article on The Climate Crisis on page 2 of this newsletter, nature conservation and climate change are intrinsically linked. Mitigating climate change will help nature while nature-based measures are essential for mitigation of climate change. The IPBES report concludes that “nature-based solutions with safeguards are estimated to provide 37 per cent of climate change mitigation until 2030 needed to meet 2°C goals with likely co-benefits for biodiversity” and “land-use actions are indispensable, in addition to strong actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use and other industrial and agricultural activities.”

However, the report includes a caution that “large-scale deployment of intensive bioenergy plantations, including monocultures, replacing natural forests and subsistence farmlands, will likely have negative impacts on biodiversity and can threaten food and water security as well as local livelihoods, including by intensifying social conflict”. The report emphasises the importance of strong legislation for the protection of threatened species. In this context, the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is given as an example of “weaker laws” and “less rigorously implemented and enforced”, and therefore less likely to achieve recovery goals.

Australia’s own extinction crisis

Since European settlement, 28 mammals have been declared extinct in Australia, more than in any other country. In recent years, three mammal species — Christmas Island Forest Skink, Christmas Island Pipistrelle and Bramble Cay Melomys, a Great Barrier Reef endemic. The melomys is the first mammal extinction caused by climate change. Sea level rise destroyed the melomys and its habitat.

The EPBC Act is failing. University of Queensland researchers have concluded that up to 7.47 million hectares of threatened species habitat – an area larger than the state of Tasmania or 3.7 million Melbourne Cricket Grounds – has been destroyed since the operation of the EPBC Act (from 2000-2017).

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis. The scope of the inquiry includes the adequacy of environment laws.

Keith Scott

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Climate change, Forests, Government Policy

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