This piece was first published on SciDev.Net on 07.05.19

An “unprecedented” loss of global biodiversity threatens the progress of more than 80 per cent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and puts 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction, a landmark scientific report has warned.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a global assessment – the most comprehensive to date – at its 7th plenary meeting in Paris, France, on 6 May.

The assessment found that the world will likely fail to meet 35 out of the 44 SDG targets as loss of species and land degradation damage agriculture and economic growth, particularly in the Global South.

“We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity, Oxford University

IPBES chairman Sir Robert Watson said humans were “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

Some 25 per cent of species on the planet are threatened and one million face extinction because of direct human influence, according to the report, which also highlights the economic implications of biodiversity loss.

Land use for crop production has increased by 300 per cent since 1980, for example. But the productivity of 23 per cent of land globally has declined through overuse, while up to US$577 billion worth of crops annually are at risk from pollinator loss.

Eduardo Brondizio, a Brazilian anthropologist and co-chairman of the assessment report committee said climate change was also starting to play a role in driving biodiversity loss.

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius, the report notes.

“Land use change used to be the biggest driver [of biodiversity loss], followed by resource extraction, but now climate change is more pronounced – and most pronounced in the Global South,” Brondizio told SciDev.Net.

This loss is slowing down progress towards most SDGs, including those related to healthy oceans, well-being, economic equality, clean water and responsible use of resources, the assessment found.

“At the moment, people move forward on the SDGs by running down our natural capital,” EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net. “We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

Accelerating species extinction has also all but destroyed the Aichi targets on improving biodiversity, agreed by 27 international organisations in 2011. This set of 20 targets was meant to be achieved next year, but Sandra Diaz, a Spanish ecologist and IPBES co-chair, said that only four of the targets stood any chance of succeeding.

The assessment was compiled over three years by 145 scientists from 50 countries. The final report was voted on and approved at 3am on 4 May, after 45 hours of intense negotiation between IPBES member governments.

Brondizio said developing countries, in particular South Africa, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, formed a “joint voice” calling for recognition of the regional and local impact of biodiversity loss.

The problem is most deeply felt among poor and indigenous populations in the Global South, the report found.

The assessment warned that the conservation status of lands belonging to or managed by indigenous people was worsening, with 9 per cent of domesticated mammals used by them for sustenance having become extinct by 2016.

Brondizio and his team assessed more than 450 indicators of land use change in territories inhabited by indigenous people and found that 70 per cent of these indicators showed decline.

However, the report pointed out that local involvement and indigenous knowledge can lead to huge improvement in species protection.

“Thirty-five per cent of the most diverse areas on the planet are managed by indigenous people, so they are central to the discussion,” said Brondizio. “We found that biodiversity is declining less rapidly in those areas. When we include local communities in governance, it tends to have a positive impact on their livelihood and on the biodiversity outcome.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.