Why biodiversity report matters

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Why biodiversity report matters

Why in news?

  • A first-of-its-kind report released by an international group of scientists, is being hailed as one of the most important scientific studies of our time.
  • The report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the most comprehensive scientific evaluation ever made of the state of our nature, and gives a detailed account of health of the species that inhabit this earth, and the condition of habitats that they live in and depend upon.

What is IPBES?

  • IPBES is a global scientific body very similar in composition and functioning to the better-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that makes periodic reviews of scientific literature to make projections about the earth’s future climate.
  • IPCC’s assessment reports, which won it the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, form the scientific basis on which the international negotiations on climate change have been happening.
  • IPBES is mandated to do a similar job for natural ecosystems and biodiversity.
    • Formed in 2012, this is the first global assessment report by the IPBES (IPCC, set up in 1988, has produced five assessment reports, and sixth one is under preparation).
    • IPBES has produced a few regional and specialised reports earlier.
    • Like IPCC, IPBES does not produce any new science, it only evaluates existing scientific knowledge to make assessments and projections.
    • Unlike IPCC, however, the IPBES assessment reports are likely to feed into and inform several multilateral processes.
  • The two UN Conventions — Convention on Biological Diversity that addresses biodiversity issues, and the Convention on Combating Desertification that deals with sustainable land management — are likely to be guided by this report in future.
  • It is possible that so would be a host of other international agreements and processes, like the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

What is the UN’s global assessment report and why is it important?

  • There is scarcely any natural environment, from the Amazon to Australia, where the hazards we have introduced are unseen – take microplastics, now known to be almost ubiquitous, or the dark stains of soot we have left upon the Arctic snowcap, in places where humans have never trodden but our footprints are clearly visible. Beyond these obvious effects, we are also wreaking changes on the climate which scientists warn will have dire consequences.
  • Until now there has been no comprehensive attempt to look at all of these effects, even though some of them have been long known.
  • The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was convened by the United Nations to find an answer to the questions: what are we doing to the world’s species, its biodiversity, its ecosystems and its natural resources? And what are the consequences – for human life, as well as the natural world?

Findings of the Report

  • Among the findings that are making global headlines is the assessment that as many as 1 million different species, out of a total of an estimated 8 million plant and animal species, are facing the threat of extinction, more than at any previous time, because of changes brought about in natural environments by human activities.
  • The report says that 75% of Earth’s land surface and 66% marine environments have been “significantly altered”, and that “over 85%” of wetland area had been lost. But, on an average, these trends were less severe on areas controlled or managed by indigenous people and local communities (like tribal communities in India).
  • At least a million species are at risk of extinction because of human actions. The abundance of native species in most major land habitats has fallen by a fifth since 1900.
  • Frogs and other amphibians, particularly vulnerable because of their bodies and breeding habits, have suffered an astonishing 40% decline.
  • Many scientists see amphibians as the “canary in the mine”, signalling dangers such as pollution and the spread of disease that can hit frogs and other amphibians harder at first than they do other animals.
  • Nearly a third of corals around the world and more than a third of marine mammals are also threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction in the last 400 years, and that is of those that can be reliably counted.
  • Even among the animals we value commercially, the picture is grim: about a tenth of all the domesticated breeds of mammals that we eat have been driven to extinction, as we increasingly focus on just a few breeds.

What’s causing the biodiversity crisis?

  • Earlier this year, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released its biennial Living Planet Report, a global assessment of the health of animal populations all over the world. They found that the average vertebrate population — that is, the average size of any given species population in the organization’s database, whether it has 10,000 individuals or 10 million — has declined 60 percent since 1970.
  • The new report breaks it down into five main factors, but the presence of humanity looms over them all. And you’ll see that while the biodiversity crisis is related to, and fueled by, the climate crisis, it’s also distinct from it.
    1. Changes in land and sea use. The area of the world that’s been unaltered and untouched by humans is shrinking all the time. And when it shrinks, so does room for nature. A third of the world’s land, the report finds, is currently reserved for agriculture or livestock. Around 100 million hectares (a hectare is 10,000 square meters, or about 2.47 acres) of tropical forest disappeared between 1980 and 2000.
    2. Direct exploitation of organisms. We’re talking about hunting and poaching here.
    3. Climate change, which increases hardships for species in so many ways, from the polar bears in the Arctic losing ice to hunt upon to the fact that when ocean waters warm, they cannot hold as much oxygen or sustain as much life.
    4. Think about the huge amount of plastic that enters the ocean every year.
    5. Invasive alien species. Due to a globalized world, species from one continent can move to another, where they don’t have natural predators, and dominate the environment.
  • To solve the biodiversity crisis, it’s going to take more than the actions of individuals, the report indicates.
    • It’s going to take countries deciding to set aside more room for nature, in the form of protected areas.
    • It’s going to take lessening the load of plastic pollution on our seas. It’s going to take addressing climate change and its various inputs.
    • It’s going to take policies that more strongly police the import of invasive species. It means protecting indigenous communities, who use their land in a more sustainable way.
    • It’s going to take innovation: How can we feed the increasing number of humans in the world, without converting more forests to farmlands?
  • In short, it’s a monumental task. As it stands, the report states “goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories.” If anything, the problems are accelerating.
  • In 2020, the UN is convening a global conference in China to set new decade-long goals to preserve biodiversity.

The India connection

  • The report does not have country-specific information. But as a major biodiversity hotspot, vast areas, especially the coastline, of which are under tremendous stress due to large population, India can identify with most of the trends pointed out in the report.
  • For example, it says 23% of global land area had shown a reduction in productivity due to degradation, and that between 100 to 300 million people were at an increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • It says plastic pollution had increased 10 times from 1980, the number of large dams (those with a height of 15 m or more) had reached almost 50,000, and that human population had more than doubled since 1970s, and the number of urban areas had doubled since 1992.
  • All these trends have been clearly visible in the case of India, and bring with them the associated risks to natural ecosystems highlighted in the report.

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