IPBES Global Assessment Report warns of ‘unprecedented’ decline in nature and species, calls for ‘transformative changes’

Hawksbill Turtles floats underwater, Indian Ocean coral reef, Maldives. Photo credit: Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock.com
Numerous associates, communities, projects, and partners of Future Earth attended the recent 7th session of the IPBES Plenary meeting and contributed to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

A landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warns that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.

The report, the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary meeting last week (29 April – 4 May) in Paris, finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental Report of its kind and builds on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005.

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors -- including current and former associates of Future Earth such as Report co-chairs Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondízio, members of Global Research Projects bioDISCOVERY, bioGENESIS, PECS, GMBA, ecoSERVICES, the Global Land Programme, the Natural Assets Knowledge-Action Network, partners such as the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) and others -- the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report also draws (for the first time ever at this scale) on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net.’ But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 percent being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the Report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.

With good progress on components of only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline. Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15). Loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue as well.

“To better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them,” said Prof. Brondízio.

“Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability. A pattern that emerges is one of global interconnectivity and ‘telecoupling’ – with resource extraction and production often occurring in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”

The Report also presents a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others. It highlights the importance of, among others, adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.

Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

For more information about IPBES and this report, visit www.ipbes.net.

More information is also available from IPBES and report authors in the #IPBES7 Media Launch #GlobalAssessment Webcast.

Authors of the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services pose together during the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary meeting in Paris, France. Photo credit: IPBES. 

Future Earth Secretariat Hannah Moersberger and Vincent Virat, and bioDISCOVERY  Director Cornelia Krug attended the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary meeting in Paris, France, on behalf of Future Earth. Photo credit: Future Earth. 

Involvement and contributions of the Future Earth community

bioDISCOVERY became a Global Research Project of Future Earth in 2015. It seeks to mobilise the scientific community to advance research on monitoring, observation and modelling of biodiversity and ecosystems in order to improve our understanding of how biodiversity and ecosystems respond to environmental change, and to overcome the barriers that impede the use of observations and modelling in management and decision-making.

bioGENESIS is a Global Research Project of Future Earth. Its mission is to promote the development of new strategies and tools for documenting biodiversity, understand the causes and consequences of diversification, and connect evolutionary biology and diversity to human well-being.

PECS, or the Program on Ecosystem Change and Society, is a Future Earth Global Research Project (jointly sponsored by ICSU and UNESCO). PECS aims to integrate research on the stewardship of social–ecological systems, the services they generate, and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.

GMBA, or the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment, is a platform for international and cross-disciplinary collaboration on the assessment, conservation, and sustainable use of mountain biodiversity. It is a Global Research Project of Future Earth.

ecoSERVICES is a Global Research Project of Future Earth that supports research for global sustainability on the premise that ecosystems provide vital services for human well-being.

The Global Land Programme is an interdisciplinary community of science and practice fostering the study of land systems and the co-design of solutions for global sustainability, and a Global Research Project of Future Earth. Scientific Steering Committee Co-Chair Rinku Roy Chowdhury is coordinating lead author of the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. SSC members Patrick Meyfroidt, Unai Pascual, and Andreas Heinimann are also authors of the report.

The Future Earth Natural Assets Knowledge-Action Network is a global initiative, focused on understanding the way society interacts with and perceives nature through the notion of “natural assets.” Learn more here.


Sandra Díaz is one of three Co-chairs of the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and is Professor of Community and Ecosystem Ecology at Córdoba National University, and Investigador Superior in the Argentine National Research Council (CONICET). She has been awarded many international distinctions is among the world’s most cited authors in her field. Díaz previously served in leading positions in the IPCC, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and DIVERSITAS, and on the Science Committee (2014-2017) of Future Earth.

Eduardo S. Brondizio is one of three Co-chairs of the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL) at Indiana University Bloomington, USA. The author of more than 200 scientific publications, he has served on numerous international scientific boards in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, having contributed in leading roles to several global and regional assessments. Brondizio previously served on the Science Committee (2014-2017) of Future Earth.

Cornelia Krug is the director of bioDISCOVERY, a Global Research Project of Future Earth, and a member of the development team of the Natural Assets Knowledge-Action Network. She led the Future Earth delegation at the 2019 IPBES7 plenary in Paris (29 April – 4 May), and served as a resource person on the IPBES task force for knowledge and data.

Unai Pascual is Ikerbasque Research Professor of ecological economics and sustainability science at the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), and affiliated at the Centre for Development and Environment (University of Bern), Switzerland. He is a member of various Scientific Steering Committees of Future Earth, such as the Global Land Programme and ecoSERVICES, and the co-Chair of the Natural Assets Knowledge Action Network of Future Earth. From 2015-2018 he was elected member of the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP) of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES. He is lead author of the IPBES Global Assessment Report and he is currently co-Chairing the Values Assessment of IPBES.

Andrew Hendry is a member and ex-officio of bioGENESIS, a Global Research Project of Future Earth, and an expert on contemporary evolution. He is a lead author for the IPBES Global Assessment Report, including the perspective of how rapid evolution influences nature's contributions to people and how they can be policy-relevant (Summary for Policymakers, A8).

Suneetha M. Subramanian is a lead author for the IPBES Global Assessment Report, a Principal Visiting Fellow at the UNU-International Institute for Global Health, and previously served on the Science Committee (2017) of Future Earth. 


Q&A: Providing context for the IPBES Global Assessment Report 

Question: What is the importance of biodiversity?

Unai Pascual: Biodiversity is the natural insurance of humankind. A world poor in biodiversity would be an extremely impoverished world, both in economic terms as well as in other ways, such as in terms of biocultural diversity. The multiple values of biodiversity are not yet mainstreamed in all sectors of the economy. Biodiversity is far more important to just talk about it in terms of an environmental issue. It is the web of life of our planet.

Cornelia Krug: Without biodiversity, you would not have natural systems. The earth would be a barren place, unable to support any form of life - it would look like Mars. Biodiversity and the contributions of biodiversity to the functioning of ecosystems and the provision of ecosystems services are crucial for human wellbeing, and they support human systems. Even if you are living in a city, in a high-rise block surrounded by concrete, you still rely on biodiversity for your survival. Biodiversity is not only very important to meet our “material” needs - e.g. food, it is also crucial for mental and spiritual wellbeing, and our identity is very often tied to a specific natural place.

Suneetha M. Subramanian: It is something that we relate to every moment of our lives, whether it's for food or for health. And like a lot of other environmental issues that we tend to highlight, biodiversity is something that is very personal, it's very much shared. And therefore, its degradation and decline, is much more alarming to our welfare… Everybody is involved.

Question: What is something about biodiversity and ecosystems we’ve previously underestimated?

Andrew Hendry: Before roughly 20 years ago, organisms in the world – their traits and their characteristics – were assumed to be relatively static, because they were the product of evolution that occurred in the past, and now that evolution generated it, they were kind of fixed at that point. And for all intents and purposes in the short term, one could ignore the fact that evolution will shape them going forward. And then over the last 20 years, more and more evidence has built up that evolution is in fact, quite rapid, and so it's occurring all around us all the time – that's contemporary evolution. More and more recently, people have realized that the traits that are evolving and the organisms that are evolving often play important roles in their communities and ecosystems. And therefore, that evolution will also influence ecosystem services and nature's contribution to people.

Question: How do you see this report contributing to making further progress on global goals, and informing better policies and actions related to biodiversity and ecosystem services in the coming decade?

Pascual: Conserving biodiversity and knowing how to best make use of it are among the most important issues we face in the world today, and this also includes understanding how to deal effectively and equitably with the challenges posed by the climate crisis. We cannot successfully deal with climate emergency if we do not take into account the multiple contributions of biodiversity to our wellbeing. We have mounting scientific evidence that we are facing a joint social-ecological emergency where global biodiversity loss and global warming are interrelated and which require radical rethinking of how we should redesign our current economic systems including policies about consumption, production and trade. Without clear steps in this direction it will not be possible to achieve the SDGs and the objectives set by the Paris Agreement.

Subramanian: For one, we are certainly able to see the gaps much more clearly, in terms of the kinds of indicators that we are using, in terms of the kind of research and knowledge gaps that we have. Because the relationships and the linkages between goals, sometimes become very unclear... All of these linkages need to be better studied. Which also means that this sort of assessment needs to be better encouraged... We know that we have problems, that nature is declining at unprecedented rates. We know that we are dependent and that our well-being is at stake. We also know now that all of the information we have currently is still insufficient to take specific measures, and that means that we need to address them through different kinds of support. Whether it's research, whether it's policy support, it could be any of those. It has exposed all the gaps that we have -- and that's a huge contribution from the report.

Question: What is the importance of involving indigenous communities in this Report?

Pascual: It is not possible to understand the value of nature if we do not understand and take into account different perspectives about human-nature relations, including those of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Subramanian: It showed the gaps in incorporating such views, [and that] by bringing it into policy-making, we will actually benefit in our whole management practices. That's something that I think we've been able to achieve, and to show that bringing on board multiple views... we've been able to build a very strong case that incorporating that actually gives us a much more robust analysis of the state and trends, as perceived by people who are in most proximate contact with these resources. And I think that's a huge contribution from IPBES assessments, because it paves the way for more structured and more purposeful inclusion of such perspectives in research studies and other evaluations.

Question: What are your biggest takeaways from the Report?

Pascual: I would extract at least three core ideas: First, the evidence provided by the Global Assessment indicates that humankind is facing a social-ecological emergency. This is not just about an environmental crisis. The wellbeing of people intrinsically depend on the health of ecosystems around the world. Second, we can identify some of the key socio-economic drivers of the accelerated loss of global biodiversity, and we can envisage key levers that could reverse the negative trends so that we have a more sustainable and fair future for all. Thirdly, there are hard social-ecological trade-offs which we have to navigate as regards choices among fostering material, regulating and non-material contributions from nature to be able to sustain the quality of life of a growing world population. Win-win solutions are becoming increasingly more difficult to be achieved. Science should identify those hardest social-ecological tradeoffs and provide the best knowledge for all kinds of decision makers, to help them navigate such tradeoffs taking into account that most decisions will involve winners and losers. Policy should be increasingly cognizant of the elusiveness of win-win solutions.

Krug: One: It is high time that we start to protect biodiversity properly, and include biodiversity concerns in decisions across all sectors. #biodiversityaction is as important (if not more) than #climateaction. Two: Human wellbeing is clearly dependent on biodiversity and functioning ecosystems. Three: Conservation of biodiversity contributes to mitigating climate and contributes to achieving many of the SDGs.

Hendry: You can't assume that the characteristics of the organism in the world around you, and therefore their contribution to people and ecosystem services, are static. As environments change, organisms should evolve, and that evolution will then change the interaction of those organisms with the environment. It's a really important component in thinking about how environmental change will shape nature's contributions to people, ecosystem services, because the effects an organism has will not stay the same. Those effects will evolve. So it's critical to know how things are going to evolve, because that will influence who lives and who dies, what populations persist and not, which invasive species spread or not, how far they spread, how large populations sizes are under climate change, whether they can respond quickly enough to persist under climate change, and so on. If you just measure the characteristics of organisms around you right now, and use that to project how things are going to change into the future, you could be wildly wrong, because organisms are not going to stay static. They're going to evolve under environmental change, which will then change their effects on the environment. It's this idea that the very things you're interested in predicting under environmental change, are one of the various things that are going to be influenced by environmental change through evolution.

Subramanian: For me the most important – and it's not a big surprise – but it's just strength of that message: that we are in such an interconnected world. Which means we've got to be mindful of our choices. So if we want to have sustainable exploitation – whether it's production or harvesting – if you want to ensure that those practices of production are sustainable, it definitely means that we have to participate in more sustainable consumption. So the whole supply in needs to be cleaned up. You name any convention, they're all talking about SPC [sustainable production and consumption]. But the why, and to some extent the how, has been highlighted here in this report. And it would be very good for different sets of stakeholders to actually take a look at the options that are provided, and to see how they could contextualize it to their own circumstances. Because as we know, the report is really global in scale, but the uptake needs to be at multiple levels... Those options are there, and it gives that basis from which local uptake can actually be undertaken.