Biodiversity Losses Accelerate as Ecosystems Approach Tipping Points

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 11, 2010 (ENS) – Unless “radical and creative action” is taken quickly to conserve the variety of life on Earth, natural systems that support lives and livelihoods are at risk of collapsing, finds a new biodiversity report released today by two United Nations environmental bodies.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 warns that massive further loss of biodiversity is becoming increasingly likely, and with it, the loss of many essential services to human societies as several “tipping points” are approached, in which ecosystems shift to less productive states from which it may be difficult or impossible to recover.

Earlier assessments have underestimated the potential severity of biodiversity loss, because the impacts of passing tipping points have not previously been taken into account, finds the report, presented at an intergovernmental scientific meeting in Nairobi that is working towards a new 10-year strategy that will help countries halt and reverse this downward spiral.

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by fire, Acre State, Brazil, March 13, 2010. (Photo by Jiele96)

One tipping point is the dieback of large areas of the Amazon forest due to the interactions of climate change, deforestation and fires. This would have consequences for the global climate and regional rainfall and would lead to widespread species extinctions.

Also analyzed is the shift of many freshwater lakes and other inland water bodies to eutrophic or algae-dominated states, caused by the buildup of nutrients. This leads to widespread fish kills and loss of recreational amenities.

Another tipping point could be triggered by multiple collapses of coral reef ecosystems due to a combination of ocean acidification, warmer water leading to bleaching, overfishing and nutrient pollution. This ecosystem shift threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of species directly dependent on coral reef resources.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 report holds that these outcomes are avoidable if effective and coordinated action is taken to reduce the multiple pressures being imposed on plant and animals species.

But that scale of action is not happening yet. In 2002, the world’s leaders agreed to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Having reviewed all available evidence, the report concludes that this target has not been met.

“We need a new vision for biological diversity for a healthy planet and a sustainable future for humankind,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes in the forward of the report produced by the UN Environment Programme and the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty with 193 member governments.

“To tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, we must give it higher priority in all areas of decision-making and in all economic sectors,” urged Ban, midway through this UN-designated International Year of Biodiversity.

Bleached coral on Bar Reef, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka May 2010. (Photo by Upali Mallikarachchi)

Based on 110 national reports and scientific assessments subject to extensive independent review, Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 is the third in a series published every four years since 2002.

Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 will inform discussions by world leaders and heads of state at a high level segment of the UN General Assembly on September 22. Its conclusions will be central to the negotiations by world governments at the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit in Japan this October.

The report identifies the five main pressures driving biodiversity loss as: habitat change, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change – all either constant or increasing in intensity.

“The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history – extinction rates may be up to 1,000 times higher than the historical background rate,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Business as usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life support systems of our planet,” he said.

Never has the world faced a more pressing crisis than the current loss of biodiversity, which affects every man, woman and child. The gap between the pressure on our natural resources and governments’ response to the deterioration is widening, warns the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which maintains the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species.

The IUCN is calling for governments to come up with a “bailout plan,” a 10-year strategy that will help countries halt and reverse this loss at a meeting of a scientific advisory body to the Convention on Biological Diversity taking place in Nairobi, Kenya from May 10 to 21.

“Twenty-one percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 35 percent of conifers and cycads, 17 percent of sharks and 27 percent of reef-building corals assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are threatened with extinction,” says Bill Jackson, IUCN deputy director general.

The Western lowland gorilla was listed as Critically Endangered in 2007 after a decline of more than 60 percent since the early 1980s due to hunting and the Ebola virus. (Photo by Precious Primates)

“If the world made equivalent losses in share prices there would be a rapid response and widespread panic, as we saw during the recent economic crisis. The loss of biodiversity, crucial to life on earth, has, in comparison, produced little response,” said Jackson. “By ignoring the urgent need for action we stand to pay a much higher price in the long term than the world can afford.”

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 authors say that for a fraction of the money summoned up instantly by the world’s governments in 2008-09 to avoid economic meltdown, they can avoid a much more serious and fundamental breakdown in the Earth’s life support systems.

“Many economies remain blind to the huge value of the diversity of animals, plants and other life-forms and their role in healthy and functioning ecosystems from forests and freshwaters to soils, oceans and even the atmosphere,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Many countries are beginning to factor natural capital into some areas of economic and social life with important returns, but this needs rapid and sustained scaling-up,” Steiner said.

“Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world,” Steiner said. “The truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of six billion heading to over nine billion people by 2050.”

The linked challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change must be addressed by policymakers with equal priority and in close co-ordination, if the most severe impacts of each are to be avoided, the report advises.

Conserving biodiversity and the ecosystems it underpins can help to store more carbon, reducing further build-up of greenhouse gases; and people will be better able to adapt to unavoidable climate change if ecosystems are made more resilient with the easing of other pressures.

“Countries are taking a very shortsighted view of the need to fuel their economies at the expense of nature, so much so that we’re now at crisis point when it comes to the loss of biodiversity,” says Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “We can’t afford to forget that all economic activity is linked to nature.”

“We need new targets and a concerted effort to ensure our natural assets are protected,” said Smart. “This year we have a one-off opportunity to really bring home to the world the importance of the need to save nature for all life on Earth. If we don’t come up with a new big plan now, the planet will not survive.”

“If governments accept the science that’s presented to them in Nairobi, we stand a chance of reversing the current loss of biodiversity,” says Sonia Pena Moreno, IUCN policy officer-biodiversity. “If they choose to reject the fact that the natural world is in real danger, the effects could be devastating.”

There are now about 130,000 protected areas, covering nearly 13 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface, and over six percent of territorial marine areas. Many of these are embedded in comprehensive national and regional networks of connected protected areas and corridors.

A new website for the program of work on protected areas under the Convention on Biological Diversity was launched today at the scientific meeting in Nairobi. The website provides information, e-learning tools and forums for the community of experts working on protected area networks throughout the world.

These e-learning tools will be available in five languages – English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic – by the next meeting of the CBD Conference of the Parties, to be held in Nagoya in October.

Click here to read the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3.

Click here for the new program of work on protected areas website.

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