Biodiversity and nature’s contributions continue dangerous decline

23 March 2018

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Biodiversity – the essential variety of life forms on Earth – continues to decline in every region of the world, significantly reducing nature’s capacity to contribute to people’s well-being. This alarming trend endangers economies, livelihoods, food security and the quality of life of people everywhere, according to four landmark science reports released today, written by more than 550 leading experts, from over 100 countries.

The result of three years of work, the four regional assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services cover the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, as well as Europe and Central Asia – the entire planet except the poles and the open oceans. The assessment reports were approved by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), in Medellín, Colombia, at the 6th session of its Plenary. IPBES has 129 State Members and four UN Institutional Partners: UNESCO, UNEP, FAO and UNDP.

Biodiversity is the living fabric of our planet - the source of our present and our future. It is essential to helping us all adapt to the changes we face over the coming years” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General. “UNESCO, UN Institutional Partner of IPBES and the host of the IPBES Technical Support Unit on Indigenous and Local Knowledge, has always been committed to supporting harmony between people and nature through its programmes and networks. These four regional reports are critical to understanding the role of human activities in biodiversity loss and its conservation, and our capacity to collectively implementing solutions to address the challenges ahead.”

The extensively peer-reviewed IPBES assessment reports focus on providing answers to key questions for each of the four regions, including: why is biodiversity important, where are we making progress, what are the main threats and opportunities for biodiversity and how can we adjust our policies and institutions for a more sustainable future?

In every region, with the exception of a number of positive examples where lessons can be learned, biodiversity and nature’s capacity to contribute to people are being degraded, reduced and lost due to a number of common pressures – habitat stress; overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources; air, land and water pollution; increasing numbers and impact of invasive alien species and climate change, among others.

One of the most important findings across the four IPBES regional assessments is that failure to prioritize policies and actions to stop and reverse biodiversity loss, and the continued degradation of nature’s contributions to people, seriously jeopardises the chances of any region, and almost every country, meeting their global development targets,” said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, the Executive Secretary of IPBES. “Acting to protect and promote biodiversity is at least as important to achieving these commitments and to human wellbeing as is the fight against global climate change. Richer, more diverse ecosystems are better able to cope with disturbances – such as extreme events and the emergence of diseases. They are our ‘insurance policy’ against unforeseen disasters and, used sustainably, they also offer many of the best solutions to our most pressing challenges.”

Accompanying the stark concerns of the IPBES experts, however, are messages of hope: promising policy options do exist and have been found to work in protecting and restoring biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, where they have been effectively applied. Better application of science and technology, empowerment of local communities in decision-making, integrating biodiversity conservation into other key sectors, as well as better cross-border regional collaboration, are some of the many important approaches the report identifies.

The Summary for Policymakers of each of the four regional assessments were released today. The complete reports will be released later this year. IPBES will also release an assessment report on on global land degradation and restoration on Monday, 26 March 2018.

Africa

By 2100, climate change could also result in the loss of more than half of African bird and mammal species, a 20-30% decline in the productivity of Africa’s lakes and significant loss of African plant species, with severe consequences for economically marginalized populations. The report adds that approximately 500,000 square kilometres of African land is already estimated to have been degraded by overexploitation of natural resources, erosion, salinization and pollution, resulting in significant loss of nature’s contributions to people. Even greater pressure will be placed on the continent’s biodiversity as the current African population of 1.25 billion people is set to double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

Measures taken by African Governments to protect biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, have contributed to some recovery of threatened species, especially in key biodiversity areas, and these efforts could be enhanced. Such measures include the establishment and effective management of protected areas and networks of wildlife corridors; restoration of degraded ecosystems; control of invasive alien species and reintroduction of wild animals. Despite the African Union’s priorities of poverty alleviation, inclusive growth and sustainable development, especially in the context of global climate change, the report finds that the continent is greatly undervaluing its natural resources.

The Americas

According to the report, under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, climate change will be the fastest growing driver negatively impacting biodiversity by 2050 in the Americas, becoming comparable to the pressures imposed by land use change. On average today, the populations of species in an area are about 31% smaller than was the case at the time of European settlement. With the growing effects of climate change added to the other drivers, this loss is projected to reach 40% by 2050.

The report highlights the fact that indigenous people and local communities have created a diversity of polyculture and agroforestry systems, which have increased biodiversity and shaped landscapes. However, the decoupling of lifestyles from the local environment has eroded, for many, their sense of place, language and indigenous local knowledge. More than 60% of the languages in the Americas, and the cultures associated with them, are troubled or dying out.

Asia

According to the report, although there has been an overall decline in biodiversity, there have also been some important biodiversity successes including, for example, increases in protected areas. Over the past 25 years, marine protected areas in the region increased by almost 14% and terrestrial protected area increased by 0.3%. Forest cover increased by 2.5%, with the highest increases in North East Asia (22.9%) and by South Asia (5.8%). There are concerns, however, that these efforts are insufficient to halt the loss of biodiversity and the decline in the value of nature’s contributions to people in the region.

The report emphasizes that climate change and associated extreme events pose great threats, especially to coastal ecosystems, low-lying coastal areas and islands. Climate change is also impacting species distributions, population sizes, and the timing of reproduction and migration. Increased frequencies of pest and disease outbreaks resulting from these changes may have additional negative effects on agricultural production and human well-being, with impacts projected to worsen.

Europe and Central Asia

A major trend is the increasing intensity of conventional agriculture and forestry, which leads to biodiversity decline. There are also examples of sustainable agricultural and forestry practices that are beneficial to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people in the region. Nature’s material contributions to people, such as food and energy, have been promoted at the expense of both regulating contributions, such as pollination and soil formation, and nonmaterial contributions, such as cultural experiences or opportunities to develop a sense of place.

The authors find that further economic growth can facilitate sustainable development only if it is decoupled from the degradation of biodiversity and nature’s capacity to contribute to people. Such decoupling, however, has not yet happened, and would require far-reaching change in policies and tax reforms at the global and national levels.