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The World Wildlife Fund and partners have tracked population changes in Earth´s animal species for decades. News from the latest “Living Planet” report, released this week, is grimmer than ever.
The report is always a must-read update on the state of the planet, but this edition is especially important for anyone who cares about biodiversity.
Here are the key findings:
The headline finding is that vertebrate populations around the world have plummeted by about 60% from 1970 to 2014. This category includes— birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish —across the globe.
If you dig deeper into the Living Planet Report, you will discover that animal declines are not uniform around the world. Freshwater species have been especially hard hit. For freshwater vertebrates, losses topped 80 per cent. 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.
This is not just a problem for wildlife. It’s a problem for you and me, too. It is pertinent to mention that humans are consuming natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. Every year, we use 1.5 planet’s worth of natural resources. Overshoot day marks the day when we have used up our annual supply of renewable resources and start spending down the Earth’s natural capital.
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 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a new UN 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 fertilizer 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.
According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 60% of ecosystem services — things like water supplies, fish stocks, fertile soils, and storm protection — are already in decline because of human impacts on the natural environment. Sometimes you need to dip into your savings to make ends meet, but you go back to saving again as soon as you can. Well people have been dipping into the planet’s natural capital account since 1975, and every year we take more than we took the year before.
The situation is even worse if we look at the tropics, nearly 20 per cent 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 square kilometres 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 per cent from 2014 to 2016, compared with the previous 15 years.
Since 1950, our species has extracted six billion tonnes of fish, crustaceans, clams, squids and other edible sea creatures. Despite the deployment of increasingly sophisticated fishing technologies, global catches — 80 per cent 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 1.5C — 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.
So, what are we to do? When we take a clear-eyed look at the trends described above, we also know we will have to accomplish much more in the future.
The secret lies in developing strategies that can be implemented by others, effectively multiplying the impact that WWF could have by itself. To do that, we are using science to develop forecasts of how much conservation impact we think a project may have in order to identify the most promising strategies. And we are using impact evaluations to rigorously measure the impacts of strategies so that we better understand the conditions under which they can be successfully replicated.