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1 million species are at risk for extinction–and humans are screwed

As we contend climate change, a landmark new report issues a wake-up call around another related crisis: the rapid loss of biodiversity and the threat it poses to ecosystems and human life.

1 million species are at risk for extinction–and humans are screwed
[Photos: Coconino National Forest/Flickr, Jason Leem/Unsplash]

The natural world is declining in a way that’s unprecedented in human history, and that’s not just because of climate change. A new report–the most comprehensive study of life on Earth ever completed–lays out the threats in detail, beginning with one staggering fact: Around 1 million animal and plant species are now at risk of extinction.

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More than a third of marine mammals and more than 40% of amphibian species are threatened, according to the report, compiled over three years by hundreds of experts for the UN’s leading research body on nature, who drew on over 15,000 other studies and sources to compile the report. Human activity has significantly altered three-quarters of the Earth’s land and around two-thirds of the marine environment. The changes aren’t just a loss for wildlife. They pose a significant risk for our own life-support systems. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of crops are at risk from the loss of bees and other pollinators. As many as 300 million people face a higher risk of floods and hurricanes because of the loss of coastal ecosystems. And as forests disappear, we’re losing one of the best tools we have to combat climate change.

“This is a wake-up call to the world that we need to address the biodiversity crisis,” says Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations for the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. “We are depleting nature faster than we ever have as a human species, and faster than nature is regenerating itself. So we’re running down our natural capital at a time when the world’s population is expanding and economic development is expanding. We need to actually reverse the trend and help restore nature if it’s going to provide the goods and services that we count on for our health and prosperity.”

[Image: Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services]
There are a few key drivers of biodiversity loss, including changing land use and, over a slightly longer time frame, climate change. Companies, which are responsible for many of these impacts, will need to fundamentally change to solve the problem. The report looked at the impacts to nature over the last five decades and several scenarios going forward; only transformational change, it says, can shift the negative trends. The food sector will have to make some of the biggest changes. More than a third of the world’s land is now devoted to crops or livestock production. From 1980 to 2000 alone, 100 million hectares of tropical forests were lost to cattle ranching and growing crops like palm oil.

There are some small signs of progress. Many of the largest food companies have committed to ending deforestation in their supply chains–though they’re still struggling to fully eliminate it. Hershey, for example, is working to protect forests near its cocoa plantations in Africa, in part because it recognizes that forests play a crucial role in fighting climate change, which threatens cocoa and other ingredients crucial to its operations. Companies like Impossible Foods are working on realistic meat alternatives in part because of meat’s particular connection to deforestation. Some other companies, like Apple, are investing in forests outside of their own supply chains. That type of funding can help fill a critical gap; a Credit Suisse report found that the world needs around $300 billion to $400 billion of conservation funding each year, but the actual number allocated is only around $50 billion. “To close that gap, most of the money’s going to come from the private sector,” says Deutz.

Some businesses are beginning to recognize and even quantify the value of nature. Dow, for example, worked with The Nature Conservancy to restore a wetland near one of its manufacturing plants by the Gulf of Mexico when it realized that the wetland could help protect the factory from flooding (previously, it had planned to pave over the wetland). The project helped the company save on insurance costs, because it was able to show its insurer how much the wetland helped reduce risk.

Other companies are beginning to rethink the products they make or how they’re packaged. Many brands are exploring the idea of reusable packaging, for example. But these efforts pale compared to the problem. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since the 1980s. Companies dump millions of tons of industrial waste into waterways each year. A third of marine fish stocks are fished at unsustainable levels. Global carbon emissions reached a record high in 2018.

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Cities also have to change. Urban areas have more than doubled since the 1990s, and as the global population also explodes, cities are growing even more now. “The world is likely to basically double the amount of built stuff in the world over the next decade,” says Deutz. “As we grow to a population of nearly 10 billion and build the cities and the infrastructure–and not to mention revamp our energy system so that we achieve the Paris goal to stay below [2 degrees Celsius of warming]–we’ve got this massive infrastructure tsunami coming. And so we need to figure out how we build that in a way that’s smart for nature and low carbon.”

We’ll also need to deliberately protect and preserve natural areas. The Wyss Campaign for Nature is one group campaigning to conserve 30% of the planet for nature by 2030, a goal that it hopes to see adopted when world leaders meet in 2020 to set new biodiversity goals. The new report may help drive support for that goal, says Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature. “I think this is going to serve as a wake-up call for the state of nature in the same way that the climate report that came out in October served,” he says. “It’s an alarm. It’s a devastating report that lets the public and policymakers know the consequences of inaction for the continued decline of nature is a direct threat to the viability of all life on the planet.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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