Away from the buzz of endless news cycles, political chatter, and self-styled punditry, the natural world is quietly experiencing the sixth mass extinction of species, with grave consequences for global food security, ecological balance, and nature reserves.
According to the Global Living Planet Index 2020—the international measure of the world’s biological diversity—populations of all classes of species, including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have plummeted on average by a whopping 68% between 1970 and 2016. The findings reflect the sixth mass extinction trend, which broadly refers to the record drop in species populations worldwide—caused in this case by warming oceans, loss of nature reserves, and climate change, all driven by human activity.
Between 1970 and 2016, tropical rainforests across South and Central American countries, and southern Mexico, recorded a shocking 94% decline in species under observation—a near annihilation of existing species and the largest fall observed in any region worldwide.
“This is because in the last 50 years our world has been transformed by an explosion in global trade, consumption and human population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanization,” the recently published Living Planet Report 2020 explains.
Co-authored by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the study maps out how the ever-increasing human encroachment on the natural world is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years. The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits,” Marco Lambertini, WWF International’s director general, writes in the report’s introduction.
This a stark reminder that while tigers, pandas, and polar bears get more airtime and have come to represent global warming and biodiversity decline, it’s the world of the small and the tiny—insects and crawlers—which provide fundamental support for life on Earth and are showing the most signs of stress. These tiny species of a million different varieties are vital to maintaining the balance of soil, plant, and insect diversity.
“Our natural world is transforming more rapidly than ever before, and climate change is further accelerating the change,” the study makes it plain.
In an email to The Real News, WWF lead scientist Jeff Opperman succinctly captured the report’s major findings: “Freshwater species populations are declining disproportionately faster than those on land or in the oceans. The 3,741 monitored populations—representing 944 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes—in the Freshwater Living Planet Index have declined by an average of 84%, equivalent to 4% per year since 1970. Species’ population trends are important because they are a measure of overall ecosystem health. These trends show the planet is in trouble.”
Opperman emphasized that human health is intrinsically linked to safeguarding environmental health, and that human communities depend on nature for survival and wellbeing.
“When ecosystems are unhealthy, we jeopardize our ability to meet the most basic needs: water, food, medicine, clean air,” Opperman said. “There is no one on the planet this doesn’t impact. And loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people who depend on it, further exacerbating an already inequitable world.”
The consequences—a less hospitable planet overall—are already in plain sight. The erosion of ecosystems will contribute to global food and water shortages, more extreme weather events, and more infectious disease outbreaks, COVID-19 being one such event. And the poorest people on the planet will suffer most.
“2020 may not seem like such an outlier when we get to 2040,” Opperman said.
Talking to The Real News from São Paulo, Brazil, climate scientist Carlos Nobré explained the situation from a climate perspective: “We are 7.4 billion people today on this planet. In the 1900s we were 2 billion. So, in the 20th century we have totally disturbed the eco-systems particularly in the last 50 years. We really provided the conditions for the disappearance of animal and plant species.”
Nobré affirms that while declining biodiversity is primarily caused by land encroachment, climate change is also now contributing to the disappearance of individual species because certain areas in the Northern Hemisphere are becoming increasingly inhospitable for native wildlife, causing migration and extinction.
“The real catastrophic impact of climate change is that if we are unable to stop global warming then we are talking about extinction and not just the reduction in the number of individual species,” Nobré said. “And the biodiversity convention made a statement last week highlighting the risk of the extinction of 1 million species. This is a tragedy we are causing.”
Nobré underscored the urgency to completely transform the way we see nature and emphasized the dire need for a fundamental shift in production systems and economics that underpin the consumption-driven society of the present times: “We are very far from finding a sustainable path out of this quagmire,” Nobrê added.
And as large swathes of pristine wilderness and rainforest give way to orderly arrays of palm and soy to cater to the ever-expanding agricultural needs of society, scientific studies are warning of another climate threat.
According to another new study, “A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks,” rising nitrous oxide emissions are putting reaching climate goals and the objectives of the Paris Agreement in jeopardy.
“The growing use of nitrogen fertilizers in the production of food worldwide is increasing concentrations of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere—a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and which remains in the atmosphere longer than a human lifetime,” the report explains.
Hanqin Tian, the study’s lead author, provided additional insight into the report: “The dominant driver of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide comes from agriculture, and the growing demand for food and feed for animals will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions.” He added, “there is a conflict between the way we are feeding people and stabilizing the climate.”
The study found that emissions from synthetic fertilizers dominate releases in China, India, and the United States, whereas emissions from the application of livestock manure as fertilizer mainly come from Africa and South America.
Read about a breakthrough study co-led by Professor Hanqin Tian that confirms global food production poses an increasing climate threat and was published today in Nature, the world's most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal.— Auburn University (@AuburnU) October 7, 2020
As these larger trends that include diversity loss, climate change, and increasing land encroachment seize upon each other, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the speed of recurring catastrophic climate events are increasing in frequency.
“In the coming decades, we expect that climate change will become one of, if not the most significant driver of biodiversity loss. And of course, climate change compounds the existing drivers—for example, when agricultural land becomes less productive due to climate change, people are forced to clear more land,” WWF’s Opperman said.
“The most important thing to me is that our modeling shows that we can halt the loss of nature. Declining biodiversity trends can be flattened and even reversed. This report is not all doom and gloom. It’s saying, this is a crisis—here’s the science to back that up—and here are the solutions.”