Humanity is Driving a Million Species to Extinction, Warns Major UN Report

Problem is solvable says report author

Gavin MacRae


Human exploitation of the natural world threatens a million species with extinction. The pace will accelerate unless transformative changes are made, warns the world’s top biodiversity research body.

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history” with “grave impacts to people around the world now likely.”

This from the most comprehensive assessment of diversity to date, by the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Drawing on “overwhelming evidence,” the report paints a grim picture of humanity now degrading the natural world so quickly that “the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life” are threatened, according to Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES.

The report was compiled by 145 expert authors over three years, and drew on input from another 310 contributing authors. Around 15,000 scientific and government sources were reviewed, assessing changes going back five decades.

The assessment is peppered with stark facts:

  • Over a third of mammals, 40% of amphibians, and a third of corals are threatened.
  • Three-quarters of the world’s land and two-thirds of the oceans have been “significantly altered by human actions.”
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly three-quarters of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • Land degradation worldwide has reduced land productivity by nearly a quarter, putting up to US$577 billion in crops at risk from pollinator losses.

Five direct drivers of destruction of the natural world are ranked by descending affect in the report: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms (harvesting, hunting, fishing, logging), climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

“The first part of the message, which makes up the vast majority of facts and figures, is that nature is declining at a pretty alarming rate,” said Kai Chan, co-author of the report and professor at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, in an interview with the Watershed Sentinel

“The second part is that it will continue to have significant impacts on humanity, and in particular, the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Flooding in Eastern Canada is an illustration of the kinds of disasters Canadians can expect if the trend is not reversed.

“That’s a perfect example of environmental change where it’s a coming together of climate change and local environmental change, with urban development and the loss of wetlands contributing to this kind of a perfect storm for floods.”

Other effects are more insidious, Chan said, such as rising food prices, soil degradation, and creeping desertification.

In this context, Chan said Canada has been doing some things right, such as earmarking over a billion dollars from the federal budget toward land protection, but further protection of land and sea is necessary.

Similarly, Chan said Bill C-69 is an important first step toward protecting Canada’s natural resources without “undermining the environment that underpins our long-term national prosperity.”

The changes needed to avert catastrophic declines in biodiversity can expect “opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo,” write the authors, “but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

“If we don’t develop our oil and gas resources here in Canada, the argument is that we will lose the opportunity to, and we will lose all of the jobs because those jobs will get exported elsewhere, and along with it the damaging development,” Chan said.

To end this destructive reasoning, Chan said global standards for extraction and remediation need to be put in place that take into account the natural world.

“It’s hard to get your head around, because it hasn’t been part of this conversation at all. But that’s what we need in order to allow Canada to have a reasonable conversation about the nature of environmental protection.”

To repair the damage is a tall order. The report urges “advancing and aligning local, national and international sustainability efforts and mainstreaming biodiversity and sustainability across all extractive and productive sectors, including mining, fisheries, forestry and agriculture.”

This will require, in essence, new social norms that prioritize sustainability, enabling “visions of a good quality of life that do not entail ever-increasing material consumption.”

Chan said though the changes needed to avoid a sixth mass extinction are major, put in the context of humanity’s achievements, the problem is solvable – if civil society mobilizes.

“When a human being is faced up against something that is so much bigger than themselves, many people just kind of throw up their hands and look the other way… The message I want to send to people is that there is a way forward and it is absolutely achievable.”

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