We are facing biodiversity crises and the actions we take this year will determine the fate of life on Earth. Humans have altered three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the seas and in the process, we are destroying the natural world and driving mass extinction. The combination of habitat loss, pollution, exploitation of natural resources, population growth, environmental degradation, and climate change have pushed the creatures that inhabit this planet to the brink. For many species, it is already too late.
Most studies estimate that current extinction rates are 100-10,000 times greater than background extinction rates over the last 10 million years. Almost 600 plant species have been wiped out in the past 250 years. Annual extinction rates vary from 150 to 8,700 species a year. Insects and birds are dying at record rates, and amphibian populations are collapsing. According to the Global Gap Analysis of the 4,734 mammal species analyzed for the study, 260 are ‘gap species’, meaning they have no protection in any part of their ranges. Of those, 54 percent, or 140, are threatened. A total of 20 percent of threatened species are gap species and 12 percent of 11,633 species of mammals, turtles, and amphibians are gap species. A 2019 study suggests that Canada and the US have lost 3 billion birds since 1970 representing a decline of 29 percent. Insects make up 70 percent of all animal species and a 2019 report warned more than 40 percent of insect species could become extinct in the next few decades. The report predicts this could have “catastrophic” effects on the planet.
More than a million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity. The impacts of human activity on the natural world are so severe that they warrant being called genocide. The Earth has endured five great mass extinctions* however, what makes the current extinction event so tragically remarkable is the fact that it is being driven by human activity. Although various civilizations have caused local extinctions, this is the first human-caused global extinction event.
Biodiversity loss has a cascade of impacts which is why it is tied to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to a UN report, the extinction crisis represents a threat to global food supplies. What is at stake is not only the fate of plant and animal life, the fate of human civilization also hangs in the balance.
World leaders are acknowledging the importance of biodiversity and we are seeing evidence of efforts to address these problems. Biodiversity was a salient theme at the G7 Summit in August. It will also be the primary focus of researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders who will come together in February for the World Biodiversity Forum 2020. This Forum will focus on developing a new biodiversity-focused agenda as part of what is being called a “New Deal for Nature“. This sets the stage for the new set of targets that will be created this year through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity at the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in October. The theme of this event is ecological civilization. This event is one of four events that will determine the strategy for global environmental stewardship over the next decade.
The new targets are designed to replace the Aichi targets which were developed in 2010. Although there have been a few successes they have largely failed. Aichi Target 11 calls on states to “conserve through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.” We have not achieved the goal of protecting 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas.
On the upside, we are seeing increases in the amount of protected area globally. Bird-protected areas have increased as have zero extinction sites. However, these protected areas are not always situated in places that are best suited to preserve biodiversity. This contradicts Target 11 which emphasizes preserving “areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services”.
Another failing of the Aichi targets concerns the protection of marine systems. We have protected only 1 percent compared to 13 percent for terrestrial systems. In light of the failure of Aichi targets, the goal is not only to create a new robust agenda that protects biodiversity, it is also to ensure that efforts are made to meet these objectives.
Biologists say we need a network approach to ecosystem conservation to protect the habitats of species at risk and surrogate species. According to a recently released UN Convention on Biological Diversity draft plan, a third of the Earth will need to be protected by 2030 and pollution will have to be cut by half. To make this possible we will need to see action on both local and global levels.
“Biodiversity, and the benefits it provides, is fundamental to human well-being and a healthy planet,” the draft plan reads. “Despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide and this decline is projected to continue or worsen under business-as-usual scenarios.”
The overarching goal of the agenda is to minimize biodiversity loss and allow ecosystems to recover by 2050. The final vision of the convention is “living in harmony with nature” To achieve this, the draft plans identify 20 targets for the next decade. The plan will be finalized and adopted at the biodiversity summit in October. The world failed to meet the Aichi targets that were set in 2010, and if they fail to set robust goals in 2020 or if they fail to meet these targets, species will disappear and entire ecosystems will be decimated. Learning to live in harmony with nature is a necessary and laudable goal, but it will mean nothing in the absence of action.
* ORDOVICIAN-SILURIAN (450-440 MYA), LATE DEVONIAN (374 MYA), PERMIAN-TRIASSIC (252 MYA), TRIASSIC-JURASSIC (200 MYA) and CRETACEOUS AND PALEOGENE (65 MYA).