The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published their 2018 Living Planet Report in October, revealing stark findings about humanity’s impact on the environment, animal populations, and animal habitats, and the likelihood of extinction for a number of species if human actions and attitudes towards the Earth and its resources do not change now. The report described human impacts on the planet since the industrial revolution, the animal species that are currently under threat, the modern causes of animal extinction, and the consequences of sustained harmful human behaviour for the environment. Most alarming of all, in the past four decades, an average of 60% of various animal species populations have declined as a result of human activity. The report is frank; unless we change our habits and attitudes towards the world now, we will drive this planet to its brink and leave it unsustainable and unlivable for future generations.
In order for the Earth to continue to sustain life and for humanity to thrive, biodiversity must also have room to flourish, as all of our resources come from nature and the Earth, including food, water, and medicine. A thriving environment also means a stable climate; access to natural energy sources; and better overall health, wealth, and security. In turn, biodiversity helps support the economic sector and contributes to a stable economy. The WWF estimates that globally, nature’s contributions to our lives totals US$125 trillion annually. However, the overconsumption of natural resources is degrading nature and creating an unstable environment that will not support us indefinitely. Humanity’s consumption of the Earth is fast outpacing the Earth’s biocapacity, and every year, the distance between these two points grows.
Overconsumption is just one of several ways in which we are negatively impacting the environment, and contributing to animal species extinction and biodiversity decimation. Exploitation and land degradation are also driven by runaway consumption. Exploitation of the land’s resources, particularly for energy and food, negatively impacts biodiversity. The growth of fisheries and overfishing have negatively impacted ocean ecosystems and marine life, causing instability in coastal ecosystems, harming coral reefs and marine habitats, and causing a decrease in the number of fish and invertebrate species. Land degradation has also negatively impacted biodiversity, particularly in the form of habitat loss for a number of animal species, causing species declines. This includes both land and ocean habitats, as a result of agriculture, deforestation, logging, mining, residential or commercial development, and energy production. Land degradation can also affect agriculture and crop yields, further harming animal pollinators that we rely on for food production.
Deforestation is another major human impact on the environment. Forests are among the world’s “richest ecosystems.” Covering up to 30% of the Earth’s surface area, they are home to 80% of the world’s animal, insect, and plant species. The Amazon rainforest, often referred to as “the lungs of the planet,” has been reduced by 20% in the last 50 years.
Pollution as a result of human activity is a well known negative impact on biodiversity and animal populations. Air and land pollution can affect animal species’ habitats and environments, making it difficult for them to survive, or else impact food supplies and reproductive performance, causing those species to slowly become extinct. However, one of the biggest pollution-related impacts on biodiversity is pollution in the ocean – specifically, plastic pollution. Plastic pollution can be found in virtually every part of the ocean across the globe. It pollutes ocean habitats and kills marine life, as it takes too long to break down, and even microplastics can be ingested by the fish we eat. Ocean pollution is also severely harming coral reefs, whose numbers have been halved in the last 30 years, and chemicals from sunscreens have also contributed to this decimation.
Lastly, climate change has irrevocably changed animal populations and biodiversity across the globe, particularly in the last 50 years. Climate change forces species to adapt to a new climate and can affect migration, reproduction, and food supply. Additionally, issues such as hunting and poaching, disease, and the introduction of invasive species into an environment will also negatively impact species populations.
There is no doubt, therefore, that biodiversity is threatened by human activities on the planet. Current ongoing extinction rates of various animal species are between 100 and 1000 percent higher today than they were before human impact on the environment became an issue. The WWF surveyed 16,704 vertebrate populations, comprised of 4000 different species, and discovered an average 60% population decline. However, certain areas and animal species are more at risk than others. South and Central America have seen the largest population decline at 89%, and freshwater vertebrate species have seen population declines of 86% since 1970.
The Living Planet Report is not the only assessment of wildlife populations and global biodiversity to be published recently. Others have also painted stark pictures of the effects that humans have had on the world, despite making up only 0.01% by biomass of all living creatures on Earth. Whales are dying due to chemical pollution in oceans; mammals are being “eaten into extinction;” and since the dawn of civilization, humans have been responsible for the loss of 83% of wild mammals and 50% of plants.
The magnitude of destruction that we have wrought on the Earth, and the carelessness and flippancy with which we have treated the natural environment cannot continue indefinitely, nor will it sustain humanity unless we change our current habits and practices. As a result of our actions, many scientists believe that we are currently living in the world’s sixth mass extinction, and unlike the other mass extinctions throughout the Earth’s history, this one has been caused by a single species – humans. According to a 2018 study, even if all negative impacts on biodiversity and animal populations were to cease immediately, it would still take another five to seven million years for evolution to naturally replace lost animal and plant species and population numbers.
While many countries have signed on to various environment-related agreements and conventions, the world must still come together to protect its biodiversity. Wealthier and larger countries can no longer consider their own personal economic interests above the climate and environment. And while current environmental policies are a start, new strategies also need to be attempted, as current plans are not bridging the gap fast enough. The WWF proposes bold goals, commitments, and targets through to 2050 in conjunction with ‘The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi Targets’ and the ‘UN Sustainable Development Goals’. Whether governments will accept these commitments remains to be seen.
There is no denying that permanent and sustainable action must be taken now to ensure that biodiversity on Earth can continue to thrive and support us, before we cross a tipping point from which we can never return. As the report states: “We are the first generation that has a clear picture of the value of nature and our impact on it. We may be the last that can take action to reverse this trend. From now until 2020 will be a decisive moment in history.”
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