Biodiversity and Nature’s Contributions Continue Dangerous Decline, Scientists Warn

Nature. Photo: Berre Ruijsink via Flickr
Human well-being at risk. Landmark reports highlight options to protect and restore nature and its vital contributions to people

For more information about IPBES and its assessments visit www.ipbes.net  

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. 

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives,” said the Chair of IPBES, Sir Robert Watson, “Nothing could be further from the truth – they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life. The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature – or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead. Fortunately, the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets.”        

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.

Declining Biodiversity – Now and in the Future

The Americas

“In the Americas, rich biodiversity makes an immense contribution to the quality of life, helping to reduce poverty while strengthening economies and livelihoods,” said Dr. Jake Rice (Canada), co-chair of the Americas assessment with Dr. Cristiana Simão Seixas (Brazil) and Prof. Maria Elena Zaccagnini (Argentina).

“The economic value of the Americas’ land-based nature’s contributions to people is estimated to be more than US$24 trillion per year – equivalent to the region’s GDP, yet almost two-thirds – 65% – of these contributions are in decline, with 21% declining strongly. Human-induced climate change, which affects temperature, precipitation and the nature of extreme events, is increasingly driving biodiversity loss and the reduction of nature’s contributions to people, worsening the impact of habitat degradation, pollution, invasive species and the overexploitation of natural resources.”

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.

Africa

“Africaimmense natural resources and its diverse cultural heritage are among its most important strategic assets for both human development and well-being,” said Dr. Emma Archer (South Africa), co-chair of the African assessment with Dr. Kalemani Jo Mulongoy (DRC) and Dr. Luthando Dziba (South Africa). “Africa is the last place on Earth with a wide range of large mammals, yet today there are more African plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and large mammals threatened than ever before by a range of both human-induced and natural causes.”

“Africa is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and this is going to have severe consequences for economically marginalized populations. 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.”

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. 

Marine and coastal environments make significant economic, social and cultural contributions to the people of Africa. Damage to coral reef systems, mostly due to pollution and climate change, has far-reaching implications for fisheries, food security, tourism and overall marine biodiversity.

Asia-Pacific

“Biodiversity and ecosystem services contributed to rapid average annual economic growth of 7.6% from 1990 to 2010 in the Asia-Pacific region, benefitting its more than 4.5 billion people. This growth, in turn, has had varying impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services,” said Dr. Madhav Karki (Nepal), co-chair of the Asia-Pacific assessment with Dr. Sonali Senaratna Sellamuttu (Sri Lanka). “The region’s biodiversity faces unprecedented threats, from extreme weather events and sea level rise, to invasive alien species, agricultural intensification and increasing waste and pollution.”

The report says that 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. Unsustainable aquaculture practices, overfishing and destructive harvesting, threaten coastal and marine ecosystems, with projections that, if current fishing practices continue, there will be no exploitable fish stocks in the region by 2048. Intertidal zones are also rapidly deteriorating due to human activities, with coral reefs of critical ecological, cultural and economic importance, already under serious threat, and some reefs having already been lost, especially in South and South-East Asia. According to the report, up to 90% of corals will suffer severe degradation by 2050, even under conservative climate change scenarios.

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.

Forests, alpine ecosystems, inland freshwater and wetlands, as well as coastal systems are identified as the most threatened Asia-Pacific ecosystems. The increasing variety and abundance of invasive alien species is highlighted as one of the region’s most serious drivers of ecosystem change and biodiversity loss.

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 non-material contributions, such as cultural experiences or opportunities to develop a sense of place.

“The people of the region consume more renewable natural resources than the region produces,” said Prof. Markus Fischer (Switzerland), co-chair of the Europe and Central Asia assessment with Prof. Mark Rounsevell (UK), “Although this is somewhat off-set by higher biocapacities in Eastern Europe and northern parts of Western and Central Europe.”

In the European Union, among assessments of the conservation status of species and habitat types of conservation interest, only 7% of marine species and 9% of marine habitat types show a ‘favourable conservation status’. Moreover 27% of species assessments and 66% of habitat types assessments show an ‘unfavourable conservation status’, with the others categorised as 'unknown'.

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.

Abandonment of traditional land-use systems, and loss of associated indigenous and local knowledge and practices, has been widespread in Europe and Central Asia, the report finds. Production-based subsidies driving growth in agricultural, forestry and natural resource extraction sectors tend to exacerbate conflicting land-use issues, often impinging on available territory for traditional users. Maintenance of traditional land use and lifestyles in Europe and Central Asia is strongly related to institutional adequacy and economic viability.

Global Development Goals in Jeopardy

“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.

“Achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, all depend on the health and vitality of our natural environment in all its diversity and complexity. 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.”

The assessment of the Americas concludes that continued biodiversity loss could undermine the achievement of some of the SDGs as well as some of the international climate-related goals, targets and aspirations.

All the plausible future scenarios explored in the Africa assessment highlight that the drivers of biodiversity loss will increase, with associated negative impacts on nature’s contributions to people and human well-being. Achieving the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the SDGs and the Aichi Targets is unlikely in three out of five scenarios explored.

The experts of the Asia-Pacific assessment point to the value of ecosystem based approaches and identify, among others, lack of solid waste management, as well as air, water and land pollution as factors undermining gains in a number of the Aichi Targets and SDGs for many countries (e.g. extinction of plant and animal species due to deforestation, rising temperature and water pollution).

There has been some progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in Europe and Central Asia, e.g. in terms of the area under protection and in mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society. However, the pressures on biodiversity from direct drivers of change are unlikely to be reduced and so progress has been negative for indigenous and local knowledge, the equitable distribution of nature's contributions and water security. Looking beyond the 2030 timescale of the SDGs, scenario analysis highlights that continuation of past and current trends in drivers of change will inhibit the contribution of the region to the widespread achievement of the SDGs, while scenarios which focus on achieving a balanced supply of nature’s contributions to people and incorporate a diversity of values are more likely to contribute to achieving the majority of the SDGs.

Promising Policy Options Available

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.

In the Americas, protection of key biodiversity areas increased 17% between 1970 and 2010, yet fewer than 20% of key biodiversity areas are protected and coverage varies significantly. The report makes it clear that protected areas and restoration projects are only some of the possible interventions – with a need to also focus on strategies to make human-dominated landscapes more supportive of biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people.

It also makes the point that biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are better protected when integrated into a broad array of economic and sectoral policies, such as payment for ecosystem services and voluntary eco-certification. Appropriate combinations of, for example, behavioural change, improved technology, research, adequate levels of finance, improved education and public awareness programs are among other options. 

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.

In addition to enhancing biodiversity conservation through appropriate governance, policies and national implementation, the authors emphasize the need for better integration of indigenous and local knowledge and greater use of scenarios in African decision-making. Of the five possible scenarios they explore, two (regional sustainability and local sustainability) are identified as the most likely paths to meet Africa’s economic, social and environmental development aspirations, but the authors point to the need for capacity building on the use of scenarios in decision-making. 

For Asia and the Pacific, the IPBES experts point to the success of countries that achieved rapid economic growth in gradually restoring and expanding protected areas – especially forests. They emphasize that, while assisting these countries in their efforts to meet some of the SDGs and Aichi Targets, this alone will not be sufficient to reduce biodiversity loss caused by the negative impacts of monoculture. For instance, the region registered a growth of 0.3% in terrestrial protected areas and 13.8% in marine protected areas – putting many countries on track to meet Aichi Target 11 – but most of the important bird areas and key biodiversity areas remain unprotected.” 

Better application of science and technology, empowerment of local communities in decision making, integrating biodiversity conservation into other key sectors, scenario planning that is sensitive to economic and cultural diversity, private sector partnerships in financing biodiversity protection, as well as better cross-border regional collaboration, are some of the many important approaches the report identifies.

A range of governance options, policies and management practices is available in Europe and Central Asia to safeguard biodiversity and ensure nature’s contributions to people. Some progress has already been made in mainstreaming biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people into public and private decision-making.

The assessment report highlights integrated approaches. These include measuring national welfare beyond GDP. Governance could become more effective by using well-designed mixes of policy instruments to motivate changes in behaviour to support sustainable development. The authors also emphasize the relevance of reconciling biodiversity conservation and human rights standards through rights-based instruments, as well as capacity building for indigenous peoples and local communities. Sufficient funding is also needed to support research, monitoring, education and training.              

Speaking about the policy options emerging from the four regional assessments, Watson said: “Although there are no ‘silver bullets’ or ‘one-size-fits all’ answers, the best options in all four regional assessments are found in better governance, integrating biodiversity concerns into sectoral policies and practices (e.g. agriculture and energy), the application of scientific knowledge and technology, increased awareness and behavioural changes.”

“It is also clear that indigenous and local knowledge can be an invaluable asset, and biodiversity issues need to receive much higher priority in policy making and development planning at every level. Cross-border collaboration is also essential, given that biodiversity challenges recognize no national boundaries.”