Global extinction rates accelerating – Expert Reaction

One million species are threatened with extinction and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, a global report warns. 

The UN’s Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) paints a grim portrait of life on Earth, with human-led changes in the form of habitat loss, invasive species and climate change all contributing to the decline of species worldwide.

The report examines changes to biodiversity over the past five decades and suggests radical change is the only way we can halt or reverse high rates of extinction over the coming decades.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report

Dr Andrea Byrom, Director of the NZ’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, comments:

“This report could not be more clear. Nature is in peril, and humans are the cause. Even more importantly however, it makes a very explicit link between biodiversity and ecosystem function: a loss of biodiversity – which has accelerated massively in the past three decades – is beginning to impact human development, economic productivity, security, and the societies we live in.

“Put simply, we are making irrevocable changes to nature, and we need to take urgent action to prevent such changes before it is too late. In every domain, from the high mountaintops to the bottom of the oceans, from the Arctic to the tropics, in freshwaters and forests and oceans, human impacts are significant and wide-reaching.

“The report is also crystal clear about the big drivers of global environmental change: (1) Changes in land and sea use; (2) Exploitation; (3) Climate change; (4) Pollution; and (5) Invasive alien species. These are prioritised in the above order, but it is acknowledged that different regions, and across different domains (for example freshwater cf. oceans), one or other of these drivers need to be afforded higher priority.

“In Aotearoa, I suspect that invasive species are more front of mind for us than some other drivers (Predator-Free 2050 being the most well-known local example of the growing awareness of the plight of our biodiversity), but the take-home message is that together, these human-induced drivers of global environmental change need to be tackled head-on. It is heartening to see that significant attention was paid to traditional indigenous knowledge, and how indigenous peoples will be instrumental in co-developing solutions to our global environmental problems when so often in the past their voices have not been heard.

“The report is a stark wake-up call to action, and to that end it provides tangible examples of action that can be taken now – particularly but not limited to policy and governance – that would make a real difference in reversing the decline. And most importantly in my view, it highlights that the global growth-at-all cost economic paradigm simply cannot continue without significant environmental impact. It identifies a need for fundamental, system-wide, and transformative action across technological, social, cultural, economic and environmental fronts, highlighting the sense of urgency needed to address the crisis at hand.

“I’m in awe of the people that worked so hard over the course of last week to synthesise the huge amount of information available to them – and I’m in awe of the many scientists and researchers worldwide whose work provided so much solid background information for the report. Let’s just hope that the world is listening.”

Conflict of interest statement: I work closely with at least two members of the NZ IPBES delegation. However, I had no direct involvement in the report.

Associate Professor James Russell, University of Auckland, comments:

“The IPBES exists to normalise biodiversity in the same manner the more well-known IPCC has raised awareness about the impacts of climate change. Framing biodiversity as a collective good is challenging, as it has many facets and threats to it, which has made it difficult to conceptualise in its global totality.

“The report paints a bleak picture of the current status of biodiversity and its decline over the past 50 years, but now makes clear that we can no longer say ‘we don’t have enough evidence’. The science is in and it’s no longer time to debate or deny the science, but to shift to discussions about appropriate policy responses.

“In saying that, I found the framing of ‘opposition from vested interests’ as problematic, as it creates an othering where there are sides of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. I think the reality is simply that we live in a world of self-interested people, where we all live in a dissonance where our actions and desires are at odds with what the planet can sustainably provide, especially when all of us desire these things. As it has been noted elsewhere, the key here would probably be to rein in the excesses of capitalism, one of the most egregious forms of resource hoarding. It has been noted that the fundamental tenet of economics is unlimited growth which is at odds with the fundamental tenet of ecology that is finite resources.

“The emphasis on transformative change is important as it recognises we have to move beyond seeking technological fixes and look for meaningful behavioural changes at the personal and daily level. In particular the importance of acting locally to respond to the major threats in their local manifestations. I also want to emphasise how good the indigenous and local people section of the report is. Both Māori (indigenous) and Pākehā (local) fall within the scope of this section, and it empowers us all to think about how we can be more ‘indigenous’ in how we whakapapa (relate) to our lands and seas for their protection, and welcome new immigrants to our country to join our mahi (practices), regardless of our ethnicities.

“I also found the focus on species extinctions interesting, as that captures only one extreme measure of biodiversity, but admittedly is one of the most powerful and worst, and also easily documented (i.e. the decline in natural areas). Islands differ from continents in their patterns of biodiversity loss and threats. Most extinctions have occurred on islands, and the major cause of these has been invasive species. Moving forward with the report’s recommendations we have to continue to pursue invasive species management in New Zealand, while not neglecting other biodiversity threats such as habitat loss and exploitation, and also preparing ourselves for the climate change threats which are still largely future forecast.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Russell was an invited plenary speaker at the CNRS Dimensions of Biodiversity: scientific research to further the goals of IPBES conference in Paris the week prior to the IPBES plenary.

Dr Carolyn Lundquist, Principal Scientist – Marine Ecology, NIWA; Associate Professor, University of Auckland, comments:

“The report is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005 and shows that species extinctions and habitat degradation are continuing. This report recognises it’s not just about how many species are going extinct, it’s also about the services nature provides for us, such as coastal protection and water filtration, as well the social and cultural relationships we have with nature, like the mana associated with abundant stocks of kaimoana.

“It also shows amid the doom and gloom there are lots of seeds of hope. These are the many small-scale initiatives from community-led restoration programmes that are bringing nature back to cities, such as the many Hamilton gully restoration projects through to national commitments such as Predator Free NZ. These initiatives combined with new scenario modelling approaches are what we have to focus on if we are to bend the curve in the opposite direction.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Lundquist leads the IPBES expert group on scenarios and models.

Professor Wendy Nelson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“This report is chilling and should make everyone wake up to the profound implications of not caring for our planet.”

“Time really is running out for our planetary life support systems and for millions of species. Decisions and actions are needed now – as the report states the current trajectory for conserving nature and attempting to manage sustainably is just not cutting it.”

“IBPES Global Assessment provides a very stark assessment of the state of our planet and the life support systems on which we rely. Natural ecosystems and processes on which all life depend are deteriorating worldwide – e.g:

  • more than a million species are threatened with extinction,
  • land degradation is reducing the capacity of soils to sustain agriculture and communities
  • loss of pollinators is threatening growth of crops globally worth hundreds of billions of dollars
  • wastes entering the seas have resulted in marine dead zones (more than 400 globally) with a combined area now greater than that of the UK

“The current approaches to conserving nature and to sustainable use of the natural environment are not sufficient. The IPBES report lays down the challenge, namely the need for “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors”.

“In New Zealand, action is needed at all levels of government to address impacts/cumulative impacts of human activities on species as well as on ecosystems on land, in freshwater, and across our marine systems from the coasts to ocean depths.

“The report points to significant knowledge gaps, such as inventories of the state of our environment which allow us to then act on changes in these indicators. It also points to taxonomic gaps. In New Zealand, the support for fundamental discovery and documentation of our biota has been declining at an alarming rate (refer Royal Society Report 2015, Australasian Decadal Plan for Taxonomy 2018) despite New Zealand’s stated commitment to biodiversity protection, and the globally recognised need to better understand species and their contributions to ecosystems.

“We need new approaches to governance that are responsive to changing conditions and recognise the role of local and indigenous knowledge and communities. These need to be able to sustainably manage multifunctional landscapes and seascapes. Some key areas New Zealand should focus on are:

  • improving freshwater management, protection and connectivity
  • promoting integrated ocean management including biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions
  • expanded and connected marine protected area networks
  • rebuilding fish stocks & encouraging ecosystem-based fisheries management

Our colleagues from the UK and Australian SMCs also gathered expert comments on the report.

Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, comments:

“Kew welcomes the IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which is a much-needed update to the first global biodiversity assessment in 2005 and includes data and insight from Kew science.

“In line with Kew’s mission, we hope that the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services will inform better policies and actions in the coming decade, starting with the 2020 Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference. It is essential that scientific research for biodiversity conservation examine and include indigenous and local knowledge, issues and priorities, an area of capacity-building that Kew hopes to expand in coming years

“In the same way that the IPCC Report on climate change has been mainstreamed, we hope that this IPBES Report can help do the same thing for biodiversity policy. Kew is contributing to some of the key international goals mentioned in the Report, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.”

“Every extinction of a species is a failure of humankind. Even long before the last individual of a species dies out, in a zoo or botanical garden, it often becomes so rare to be ‘functionally’ extinct in nature. The loss of biodiversity is therefore a much bigger problem than just counting species disappearances: it is the loss of species in our garden, our city, our country.

“This report’s message is therefore very clear – what we need now is massive, transformative and globally coordinated changes across all levels of society. It confirms that that we can’t just preserve, we must reverse the trend by increasing biodiversity locally, regionally, and globally so I welcome the roadmap it sets out to address some of the challenges. .

“Despite the ambitious biodiversity goals that were set by the CBD – due to be met by next year – and the great efforts and good examples, this report shows that the overall outcome is an almost complete failure. We must learn from that process in order to not make the same mistakes. We just can’t miss this chance ­– lest it be our last. “”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Euan Ritchie is Director of the Media Working Group at the Ecological Society of Australia and an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University

“This report must represent a line in the sand for humanity.

“It shows we are failing badly to conserve life on Earth, and this places human survival at genuine risk too.

“Just as insects pollinate our crops, our survival and health is linked with so many species in a rich tapestry of connections and interactions between species.

“Through climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and other threats caused by humans, we are unravelling this tapestry at an extraordinary rate, and we must act swiftly and substantially to avert economic, environmental, cultural and social disaster.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Richard Bardgett is President of the British Ecological Society, UK

“The report lays out the scale and magnitude of the crisis we are facing. The weight of evidence of species and habitat loss, the breadth of expertise, and the number of countries agreeing the text makes the IPBES assessment impossible to ignore.

“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear what will happen to the natural world if we continue as we are. This matters – not only for conserving the nature we see around us, but also for maintaining and increasing our own wellbeing and prosperity. Biodiversity and thriving ecosystems are critical for sustaining the natural resources on which our economy depends.

“IPBES describe themselves as seeking to do for biodiversity what the IPCC and its reports have done for climate change. They have set out the scientific evidence in ways that can inform policy and have pointed to actions that will be necessary to turn around these declines. It is now for scientists, governments and communities around the world to take up the challenge as a matter of urgency, and find, test and implement the actions that will enable nature and people to thrive.”

“My own research in the relatively unexplored world of soil illustrates just how important biodiversity is. Food crops need fertile soils, and this is influenced by the vast variety of organisms that live in the soil. The diversity of plants above ground, and the birds and mammals that live off them, also rely on a healthy, biologically diverse soil. Science can help identify land management practices that sustain biodiversity for everyone’s benefit – but we will only see real change where the right government policies and economic incentives are in place to support it.”

No interests declared.