The world’s social and financial systems must undergo a huge transformation, including ending a focus on economic growth, to revive a natural world vital to human life – a major UN report has concluded.
Consumers in wealthy countries should waste less food, while world leaders should introduce urgent reforms including creating more green space in cities, bringing in wildlife-friendly farming and curbing wasteful consumption, international scientists warn.
The United Nations’ first comprehensive report on biodiversity also calls for governments to:
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- restore habitats such as native forests
- grow more food on less land
- crack down on illegal logging and fishing
- create marine protected areas
- reduce pollution and the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment
The study, endorsed by 130 countries, including the US, Russia and China, sets out a framework for halting what has been dubbed the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, from insects to plant life and fish. It is the strongest call ever by global scientists for action.
But the experts warned that “vested interests” such as energy giants and farmers that benefit from subsidies and lack of regulations would oppose changes to the status quo.
Species are being lost at an “unprecedented” rate – tens or hundreds of times more quickly than in the past, the report states.
Without “transformational change”, the damage will continue or worsen up to 2050 and beyond, directly threatening human wellbeing worldwide, the study says. It will also undermine efforts to tackle poverty and hunger, improve health and curb climate change.
“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report warns, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken”.
It warns that unless countries step up efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could lose 40 per cent of amphibian species, a third of marine mammals and a third of reef-forming corals within decades.
More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) study comes less than a week after the UK government’s climate advisers issued an urgent call for radical steps to halt the climate emergency.
The authors, meeting in Paris, identified industrial farming and fishing over the past 50 years as major causes of the collapse of nature, with extinctions being exacerbated by climate change driven by burning fossil fuels coal, oil and gas.
The clearing of forests for crops and livestock, expansion of roads and cities, cutting down forests, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species have used up three-quarters of the world’s land.
Eco campaigners said the report must act as an emergency wake-up call and that people must rethink how to produce food.
“It’s absolutely vital that we urgently change the way we use the land and oceans to end this war against nature,” said Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven.
He urged the UK government to plant millions of trees, provide ocean sanctuaries around coasts, restore peatlands and support a shift from meat and dairy to plant-based meals.
Alexandre Antonelli, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said: “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.”
He warned that previous ambitious goals under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that were due to be met by 2020 had been “almost a 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,” he said.
Lorna Greenwood, of Extinction Rebellion, said: “It’s time to rethink how we grow food, travel and look after the countryside.
“It may mean hard choices but the rewards are enormous.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “This is the sixth wave of extinction in our planet’s history but it is the first that is all our own doing.
“We made it happen and, with urgent action, we can stop it.
“To do so will require transformative changes to re-programme our whole economy so that it works in the interests of both people and the planet.”
The findings are not just about saving plants and animals, but about preserving a world that’s becoming harder for humans to live in, said Sir Robert Watson, a British scientist and panel chairman.
“We are threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric” of humanity, he said, adding that the poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden.
“The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he went on.
“Business as usual is a disaster.”
Sir Robert said economic capital was not the measure of wealth of the world – natural, social and human capital were better.
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats, he believed. The report projects 15.5 million miles of new roads will be paved over nature between now and 2050.
Individuals can help with changes to how they eat and use energy, said ecological scientist Josef Settele.
Biologist Thomas Lovejoy, who has been called “the godfather of biodiversity”, said: “We can actually feed all the coming billions of people without destroying another inch of nature.”
It’s hoped the study will help shape new global targets on nature at a UN meeting in China next year.