‘A line in the sand for humanity’

By on 14 May, 2019

Landmark report finds unprecedented species extinction rates and ‘opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good.’

In a historic publication, a scientific paper representing a process of over 500 biodiversity experts, approved by 134 countries warns that the systems supporting life on Earth will collapse without ‘transformational change’.

Last week a historic event occurred, one that will be noted as a turning point of this era.

Whilst the news was obscured in the sound and fury of a royal birth and discussion of ‘green tape’ in a blowhard election campaign, May 6th, 2019 was the date upon which the public was informed of a development with truly epochal significance.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a landmark paper that documents the decline of nature and its consequences for human society with a level of detail and rigour never seen before.

The report is the first intergovernmental publication of its kind, and the most comprehensive ever completed, based on the systematic review of around 15,000 governmental and scientific sources to deliver the most detailed portrayal of the relationship between economic pathways and impact on nature.

The findings are bleak.

Life on Earth is in a state of unprecedented decline, with the extinction of almost one million species is guaranteed without transformational systemic change — an outcome with dire ramifications for humans, along with every other species in the biosphere.

Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions — trends that on average, have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The productivity of the global land surface has declined by 23 percent due to land degradation, and up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from the loss of pollinating species, and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricane due to loss of coastal habitats and protection.

One third of marine fish stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015, with 60 percent maximally sustainably fished and only seven percent harvested at levels below what can be sustainably fished.

Associate Professor Euan Ritchie, Director of the Media Working Group at the Ecological Society of Australia and Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University, said that the report’s findings show that human survival at genuine risk.

“This report must represent a line in the sand for humanity,” he said.

“Just as insects pollinate our crops, our survival and health is linked with so many species in a rich tapestry of connections and interactions between species.

Through climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and other threats caused by humans, we are unravelling this tapestry at an extraordinary rate, and we must act swiftly and substantially to avert economic, environmental, cultural and social disaster.”

The report found changes in land and sea use as the primary driver of mass extinctions, which would fundamentally change Earth’s ability to support life.

Though the scale of the existential threat represented by the biodiversity loss projected in the report is comparable with that of runaway climate change, that is not the main factor driving the mass extinction event.

In ranking the five direct drivers of these processes, climate change ranked third behind ‘changes in land and sea use’ and ‘direct exploitation of organisms’, ahead of ‘pollution’ and ‘invasive alien species’.

It’s not game over yet, though. Sir Robert Watson, IPBES Chair, said that meaningful action to halt and reverse these processes is possible.

“The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said.

“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.”

“The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” Watson said.

So what can you do to stave off the apathy inspired by existential threats, and contribute to outcomes that support ongoing life on Earth?

Read more to understand the scale of this threat, foremost. Michelle Lim, IPBES Fellow and co-author of the report’s chapter on policy options has a great explainer contextualising the report at The Conversation.

A great guide from The Washington Post underscores that voting for representatives appropriately credible on environmental issues is critical at this juncture.

The report found that negative trends in nature will continue until 2050 in all policy scenarios — except those that include transformational change.

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