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Nature’s dangerous decline ‘unprecedented’: 1 million species threatened

Water pollution has produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’ - low oxygen areas where life cannot survive. Photo/Getty

Biodiversity – the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems – is declining faster than at any time in human history.

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating.

A new report has found that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.

The report, by the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), assessed the state of the earth's biodiversity based on a review of 15,000 scientific papers.

A summary of the report released this week, makes for dire reading. 

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said professor Josef Settele, who co-chaired the assessment.

“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

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More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016.

Dr Carolyn Lundquist, Principal Scientist, Marine Ecology, NIWA; Associate Professor, University of Auckland said the 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.”

Professor Wendy Nelson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, said action is needed at all levels of government in New Zealand.

She said 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

The report identifies the main driver behind the threat as land and sea use: Over a third of the world's land is used for crops or livestock. Since 1970, trends in agricultural production, fish harvest, bioenergy production and harvest of materials have increased, in response to population growth, rising demand and technological development, and it has come at a steep price.

Also affecting biodiversity is pollution.

Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) - a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.

Direct exploitation of animals, for example, hunting; climate change; and invasive alien species, when a species spreads into a foreign environment and dominates, are also causing havoc.

Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; and technological innovation, which drives resource extraction and production in one part of the world to satisfy demands for consumers in another.

Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the report found that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories. Transformative change between different sectors assisted by government policy and law changes is needed, the report said.

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