A few years ago, a team of scientists and engineers speculated in a documentary series what might become of Earth if humans suddenly disappeared. They predicted events beginning one day after the disappearance of humankind to one hundred years into the future, and explored the ways man-made structures might collapse, while nature replenished. The series demonstrated humankind’s enormous impact on the environment, and how without us, both animal and plant populations, on land and in water, would thrive.
The damage to biodiversity became clear a week ago when a summary of a UN-backed report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, revealed that 1 million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction from human activity.
The report, compiled by 145 authors from 50 countries, is the most comprehensive look at humanity’s imprint on nature ever to be completed, having tracked the relationship between economic development and the impact on the planet over the last 50 years.
It found that almost 75 per cent of the world’s freshwater was being devoted to agriculture and livestock; that approximately 60 billion tons of renewable (freshwater and biomass) and non-renewable resources (oil, gas and minerals) are extracted globally every year; that urban areas have more than doubled since 1992 at the expense of forests and wetlands; and that fertilizer has produced more than 400 dead zones in the oceans, equalling an area greater than the size of the United Kingdom.
“Nature makes human development possible but our relentless demand for the Earth’s resources is accelerating extinction rates and devastating the world’s ecosystems,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Head of UN Environment. The report “highlights the critical need to integrate biodiversity considerations in global decision-making on any sector or challenge, whether it is water or agriculture, infrastructure or business,” she added.
In response to a growing population—projected by the UN to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 —intensive agriculture, overfishing, energy production and the extraction of raw materials have “significantly altered” three quarters of Earth’s land and over half of the oceans, said the report.
However, the authors demonstrate that not all modes of human life lead to such pervasive environmental degradation. A quarter of global land area, occupied by indigenous peoples, is, while under increasing pressure, declining “less rapidly” than in other lands. In fact, the authors state that regions and countries would stand to benefit from the knowledge of indigenous people and their understanding of large ecosystems.
“Governance, including customary institutions and management systems … involving indigenous peoples and local communities, can be an effective way to safeguard nature and its contributions to people,” the report says.
Yet, areas of the world expected to experience the most adverse effects from climate and biodiversity change are places predominantly inhabited by indigenous communities, as cities expand and require more roads, dams and oil and mineral extraction.
“A critical message from the report is that nature fares better when the people most connected to that nature—those living within it—are supported as the primary stewards,” said Doreen Robinson, wildlife expert at UN Environment. “When people benefit from biodiversity they protect it.”
It is clear from the report that at the current rate of development, negative impacts to nature are predicted to continue to 2050 and beyond, with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 expected to be missed. That is why the report’s authors highlight the need for a “system-wide reorganization,” across technological, economic and social realms so that nature can be restored and conserved.
Or as Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) , said: “We must live on Earth differently.”