Biodiversity crisis 'as big a threat as climate change'

Beach pollution at Kuta beach, Bali
Beach pollution at Kuta beach, Bali Maxim Blinko v/

Life on Earth is under unprecedented threat, with more than a million species facing extinction and global ecosystems eroding faster than ever before, warns a landmark international report published on Monday in Paris.


Experts from around the world have spent the past week at Unesco's headquarters, teaming up with governments from 130 countries to hammer out what's billed as the most comprehensive biodiversity assessment in history – and to hatch a plan to save nature.

The report, by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES), tells us that nature is in dangerous decline, with ecosystems, species – both wild and domestic, plant and animal – shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing altogether.

Humans pose the biggest risk to humanity

We're warned that humans are responsible for the very catastrophe that is threatening the human way of life. Changes in land and sea use are identified as the biggest drivers of biodiversity losses, followed by the direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and, lastly, invasive alien species.

Part of the problem is that governments usually prioritise action on climate change and – when it comes to protecting biodiversity – governments think they're doing more than they actually are,” the report's lead author, Paul Leadley, told RFI.

“Governments have vastly increased protected areas, both in marine and terrestrial systems,” he says. “What they don't realise is that we're fighting against such strong drivers of change – such as land use change, destructions of habitat and overfishing etc – that those measures just simply aren't enough.”

Eighty percent of the UN sustainable development goals and other biodiversity targets have been compromised because of the deterioration of nature. The greatest impacts will be felt by the poorest and most vulnerable, says Unesco secretary general Audrey Azoulay – those at the frontlines of a what experts warn is a threat to the world's peace and security.

“The erosion of the world's biodiversity reminds us of the importance of solidarity and the need for international cooperation,” Azoulay added, telling us that 2020 will be a strategic year. 

The IPBES assessment marks the first time governments have gotten together to tackle what is globally accepted is a biodiversity emergency. It represents three years of collaboration by hundreds of experts from dozens of countries – scientists informing policymaking – and the message is clear.

Need for urgent 'transformative change'

The smartest brains from all domains of science say it's not too late to correct massive biodiversity losses, but it can only be done through “transformative change” – a sweeping overhaul of the way humans produce and consume almost everything, especially food.

It's essentially a reboot of society, Leadley says, an overhaul of all sectors from agriculture, fishing, mining, energy, finance. And the good news is that in some of those areas transformative change is already happening.

Interview: Paul Leadley, lead author IPBES biodiversity assessment

“What we're saying is there's no silver bullet – we can't just make more protected areas and all of a sudden things will be better,” Leadley says. “We need much more fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume, changes to the way we're governed, changes to the way our economy functions, changes to the way trade functions – so really systemic changes.”

But for that to continue to happen – and for it to make a difference for the future of humanity – the report is urging a stronger and more sustained political commitment.

Open copper mine pit, Spain
Open copper mine pit, Spain Denis Zhitnik/

“Waste is undermining nature's ability to regenerate, with more food, energy and raw materials being produced than ever before,” said outgoing IPBES chair, Robert Watson, adding that it isn't simply an environmental issue. “It's a developmental issue, an economic issue, a social issue and also an ethical issue.”

Learning from indigenous communities

Nature managed by indigenous peoples – which represents at least a quarter of the global land area – is declining less rapidly than land elsewhere. The rest of the world is now drawing lessons from indigenous communities who, for the first time, are informing the way biodiversity is managed on a global level.

“Indigenous peoples are really important for helping to protect nature, and we need to include them in the dialogue a lot more – and to take into account the fact they're doing a good job in protecting nature,” Leadley says.

“In many cases, they don't really distinguish themselves from nature – they are a part of it, and I think we have a lot to learn from that.”

While the report offers up “actions for sustainability” and lays out options for decision-makers in sectors across the board, the scientists stop short of telling governments what to do. Instead, those in charge of policy are informed of the consequences of their potential decisions.

In the words of Unesco’s Azoulay: “After this week, no one will be able to say they didn’t know about the biodiversity crisis.”

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