“The situation is really bad, and it keeps getting worse,” WWF International Director-General Marco Lambertini told AFP. “The only good news is that we know exactly what is happening.” For freshwater fauna, the decline in population over the 44 years monitored was a staggering 80%. Regionally, Latin America was hit hardest, seeing a nearly 90% loss of wildlife over the same period. Another dataset confirmed the depth of an unfolding mass extinction event, only the sixth in the last half-billion years.
Depending on which of Earth’s lifeforms are included, the current rate of species loss is 100 to 1,000 times higher than only a few hundred years ago, when people began to alter Earth’s chemistry and crowd other creatures out of existence. Measured by weight, or biomass, wild animals today only account for 4% of mammals on Earth, with humans (36%) and livestock (60%) making up the rest.
The great acceleration
Ten thousand years ago that ratio was probably reversed. “The statistics are scary,” said Piero Visconti, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and one of 59 co-authors of the 80-page report. “Unlike population declines, extinctions are irreversible.” Back-to-back marine heatwaves have already wiped out up to half of the globe’s shallow-water reefs, which support a quarter of all marine life.
Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5°C (2.7°F) — mission impossible, according to some scientists — coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90%. A 2°C world would be a death sentence, according to a new U.N. report. Half-a-century of conservation efforts have scored spectacular successes, with significant recoveries among tigers, manatees, grizzly bears, bluefin tuna and bald eagles. “If we didn’t make those efforts, the situation would have been much worse,” Mr. Lambertini, the WWF chief, said.But the onslaught of hunting, shrinking habitat, pollution, illegal trade and climate change — all caused by humans — has been too much to overcome, he acknowledged. “Scientists call it the ‘great acceleration’,” he said in a phone interview. “It is the exponential growth over the last 50 years in the use of energy, water, timber, fish, food, fertiliser, pesticides, minerals, plastics — everything.”
‘New deal’ for nature
The pace of population increase — long taboo in development and conservation circles — also took off around 1950, the date scientists have chosen as the “gold spike”, or starting point, for a new geological period dubbed the Anthropocene, or “age of man”. In looking for answers, conservationists are turning to climate change for inspiration. “We need a new global deal for nature,” said Mr. Lambertini, noting two key ingredients in the 195-nation Paris climate treaty. “One was the realisation that climate change was dangerous for the economy and society, not just polar bears,” he said.
Similarly, he argued, threatened ecosystem services long taken for granted — drinkable water, breathable air, heat-absorbing oceans, forests that soak up CO2, productive soil — are worth tens of trillions of dollars every year. “A healthy, sustainable future for all is only possible on a planet where nature thrives and forests, oceans and rivers are teeming with biodiversity and life,” said Mr. Lambertini.
The Paris Agreement, negotiated under the U.N. convention on climate change, also set a clear target: global warming must be held to “well below” 2°C, and 1.5°C if possible.
The parallel U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), by contrast, has lots of targets running out to 2020 which are not only too weak, but — with one possible exception — will probably not be met, Mr. Lambertini said. “The CBD is failing,” he told AFP. But an upcoming meeting of the 195-nation body could be the beginning of a “revolution” that will see the Convention re-engineered in 2020 into “a new deal for Nature.”
Nature under assault: key indicators
From 1970 to 2014, the number of animals with a backbone — birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish — plummeted across the globe, on average, by about 60%.
For freshwater vertebrates, losses topped 80%. Geographically, South and Central America have been hit hardest, with 89% less wildlife in 2014 than in 1970.
The WWF Living Planet Index tracks more than 4,000 species spread across nearly 17,000 populations.
The index of extinction risk for five major groups — birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and an ancient family of plants called cycads — shows an accelerating slide towards oblivion.
Depending on which categories are included, the current rate at which species are going extinct is 100 to 1,000 times greater than only a few centuries ago, when human activity began to alter the planet’s biology and chemistry in earnest.
By definition, this means that Earth has entered a mass extinction event, only the sixth in half-a-billion years.
In 2009, scientists weighed the impact of humanity’s expanding appetites on nine processes — known as Earth systems — within nature. Each has a critical threshold, the upper limit of a “safe operating space” for our species.
The do-not-cross red line for climate change, for example, is global warming of 1.5°C, according to a new U.N. report.
So far, we have clearly breached two of these so-called planetary boundaries: species loss, and imbalances in Earth’s natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous (mainly due to fertiliser use).
For two others, climate and land degradation, we have one foot in the red zone. Ocean acidification and freshwater supply are not far behind. As for new chemical pollutants such as endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and plastics, we simply don’t know yet how much is too much.
More generally, the marginal capacity of Earth’s ecosystems to renew themselves has been far outstripped by humanity’s ecological footprint, which has nearly tripled in 50 years.
Nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest, has disappeared in five decades. Tropical deforestation continues unabated, mainly to make way for soy beans, palm oil and cattle.
Globally, between 2000 and 2014, the world lost 920,000 sq. km of intact or “minimally disturbed” forest, an area roughly the size of Pakistan or France and Germany combined. Satellite data shows the pace of that degradation picked up by 20% from 2014 to 2016, compared with the previous 15 years.
Since 1950, our species has extracted 6 billion tonnes of fish, crustaceans, clams, squids and other edible sea creatures. Despite the deployment of increasingly sophisticated fishing technologies, global catches — 80% by industrial fleets — peaked in 1996 and have been declining since.
Climate change and pollution have killed off half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs, which support more than a quarter of marine life. Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5°C — which many scientists doubt is possible — coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90%.
Coastal mangrove forests, which protect against storm surges made worse by rising seas, have also declined by up to half over the last 50 years.