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“Urgent Action Needed: Visualizing the Potential Global Devastation of Biodiversity by 2050”


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Experts have cautioned that if we continue to destroy nature on a global scale, it will have severe consequences such as food and water shortages, the extinction of distinctive species, and the destruction of landscapes that are vital to human culture and recreation by the middle of the 21st century.

If humanity fails to fulfill its promises to address the five primary causes of nature depletion, essential ecological systems may collapse at the same time as the human population reaches its highest point in 2050.

The Guardian interviewed prominent scientists, Indigenous leaders, and conservationists from different parts of the world to discuss the potential repercussions of not taking action against the loss of biodiversity by the mid-century. Despite the fact that one million species of plants and animals are in danger of disappearing, and natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to the climate emergency, the preservation of nature has become a divisive issue in many countries. This has led to opposition towards environmental policies.

Experts from all around the world have cautioned that failure to act by the middle of the century could lead to extinctions, the swift proliferation of invasive species (which may introduce new diseases), widespread plastic pollution, declining fish populations, and vanishing forests.

According to the IUCN red list, over 25% of the plant and animal species that have been thoroughly evaluated for conservation are in danger of becoming extinct.

Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, expressed his sorrow at the ongoing destruction of natural ecosystems in Brazil. He noted that various habitats such as the Amazonian and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the Cerrado shrublands, are being devastated, causing harm to countless insects, orchids, fungi, micro-organisms, and animals like jaguars and toucans that have called these places home for centuries. The reasons for this loss of biodiversity are evident and urgent action is needed. While science offers effective solutions, time is of the essence.

According to research, in order to prevent potential loss, it is crucial for humanity to take action to restore nature globally. This includes implementing more sustainable farming methods, decreasing meat consumption, controlling the spread of invasive species, and significantly reducing the use of fossil fuels.

During the Cop15 summit focused on biodiversity in December, governments came to a consensus on 23 goals. These objectives include the rehabilitation of 30% of the Earth’s damaged land, inland water, coastal, and marine ecosystems. In the past, governments have not successfully achieved any of their set goals for preserving nature, and experts stress the need for immediate action to reverse this trend.

A person seen walking along a huge expanse of red sand with only three trees to be seen

‘One word: desert’

According to Sandra Myrna Díaz, an Argentinian biologist and co-chair of the 2019 IPBES assessment of the planet’s state, the main cause of biodiversity decline in the last five decades has been land-use change.

In the coming decades, if these patterns persist, the quality of soil is expected to decline even more due to erosion caused by frequent planting, as well as contamination from biocides and salinisation. Additionally, the amount of natural areas accessible to the general public will continue to decrease.

Over the course of the last 10,000 years, experts believe that humanity has cleared roughly one-third of all forests for agricultural purposes, leading to the destruction of vital ecosystems like tropical rainforests that boast a high level of biodiversity.

However, specialists caution that distinctive dry landscapes are also in danger. Emma Archer, a geography and environmental science professor at the University of Pretoria, stated: “The Karoo landscape in South Africa is undergoing transformation due to evolving agricultural practices, heightened mining and renewable energy investments, and the effects of climate change.”

If we do not have a deeper understanding and take action to address the complex interactions between various factors that affect this valuable landscape with high biodiversity, including one of the most diverse desert ecosystems in the world, the consequences will be severe.

Cristiane Julião, a member of the Pankararu people in the Brazilian Amazon, cautions that altering land use can have far-reaching effects on biodiversity loss. Failure to protect biodiversity may result in a bleak future for both the planet and indigenous communities, with potential desertification being a major concern.

If the world’s economic system continues to prioritize profits and exploitation over the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants, the Brazilian Amazon, the home of my people, will eventually become a barren wasteland. It is crucial that we make a shift in our current development trajectory in order to protect our knowledge, customs, and traditions, which are essential for the survival of animals, plants, and the climate.

A man pulls up water hyacinth, which as carpeted the surface of the lake, as two people pass in a canoe in the background

Invasive species on the march

A recent evaluation by the United Nations revealed that invasive species have become a costly issue, with potential for further deterioration without conservation efforts. There are over 3,500 harmful invasive species worldwide, mostly due to human transportation and trade, and they are contributing to events like the destructive wildfires in Hawaii last August.

Aníbal Pauchard, professor of forest science at the University of Concepción, who helped lead the expert UN assessment, said that without action, by 2050 Chile “will have lost its ecological uniqueness and will be less suitable for nature and people.” About a quarter of Chile’s biodiversity is not found anywhere else on Earth due to natural barriers including the Atacama desert, the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.

According to Pauchard, invasive species pose a significant threat. These non-native species that are overly abundant can take over and replace the natural ecosystems, leading to the extinction of native species, particularly those found only in Chile, and causing a decline in the population of other species.

According to Hanno Seebens, a researcher at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, the rising temperatures and introduction of non-native species could result in disease-carrying animals inhabiting new areas in Europe. He also stated that the ongoing effects of climate change could lead to the expansion of species like the Tiger mosquito, which can transmit diseases, throughout Europe.

According to Seebens, if there are no changes, the amount of invasive species in Europe is predicted to increase twofold by 2050.

Prof Peter Stoett, co-chair of the UN assessment on invasive species, has cautioned that without heightened biosecurity protocols, North America could face risks to human well-being, indigenous wildlife, and the economy. The assessment spanned over four years.

According to the speaker, non-native grasses will persist in fueling fires in forests, and invasions along the coast will pose a greater threat to fisheries. Additionally, climate change is expected to widen the reach of invasive species such as zebra mussels in the Great Lakes region, with a particular concern for the vulnerability of the Arctic. Without increased efforts to control these invaders, the entire ecosystem will undergo significant change.

Collaboration on a global scale is essential.

Experts predict that in order to maintain our current level of consumption, humans would require the resources of 1.7 Earths. As we move towards a greener energy future, mining companies must develop new methods of extraction that minimize harm to the environment.

According to Dr. Charles Barber, a senior advisor on biodiversity at the World Resources Institute, the increase in mining for the purpose of transitioning to green energy will lead to miners encroaching on the few remaining areas of biodiversity over the next 25 years. While these minerals are necessary, we must find alternative mining methods that are not as harmful to the environment and society as those currently in use, in order to prevent a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

According to Unai Pascual, a member of the Basque Centre for Climate Change, unchecked population growth and urbanization will place additional pressure on resource demand. He emphasizes the importance of proper management to ensure that nature has a place in urban areas.

According to Pascual, by 2050, over two-thirds of the estimated 10 billion people will reside in urban areas. This will result in a greater need for energy to handle the increasing intricacies of urban life. Additionally, cities will have a greater demand for natural resources, posing serious threats to the health of ecosystems. As the population in cities continues to grow, more people will become disconnected from nature, both physically and mentally.

Pascual cautioned that failure to take action to preserve and improve urban biodiversity could result in increased suffering for the most marginalized urban populations.

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After many years of excessive fishing of important species for human consumption, the decline of fisheries is emphasized as a danger by numerous experts, particularly due to the potential impacts of global warming. Dr. Jean-Marc Fromentin, of the marine conservation organization UMR Marbec, stated: “If we do not take decisive measures, the ocean’s productivity and, subsequently, the global fish harvest will significantly decrease due to the warming and acidification of seawater caused by climate change.”

According to him, the decrease will have a particularly significant impact on tropical oceans, as the availability of wild fish is crucial for ensuring food security for coastal communities.

Surangel Whipps Jr, president of the Pacific country of Palau and co-chair of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, said the world could learn from his country’s customs: “Palau’s bul tradition, a sustainable practice of pausing fishing to replenish stocks, has nourished our generations.

He emphasized the importance of global cooperation, stating that relying solely on sustainability efforts within our exclusive economic zone is not enough to ensure the world’s ability to provide essential resources such as food, air, and water.

Cows peer over a crumbling sandy cliff edge exposing plastic bags and other rubbish

Permanently contaminated groundwater.

Experts stress the urgency of addressing the accumulation of plastics, chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers in natural environments, as it poses a significant threat to biodiversity. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on fighting plastic pollution, emphasized the need for prompt action to prevent further contamination of crucial ecosystems.

“The global estimation of microplastic in the Earth’s oceans was published at an average of 170 trillion particles. This revealed a concerning and escalating pattern, with projections showing a potential quadrupling by 2050. Such levels of pollution would surpass the capabilities of Earth’s systems to manage.”

“Emphasizing the significance of a robust international agreement through the UN to address plastic pollution, currently under discussion. This issue cannot be solved solely through recycling.”

According to Federico Maggi of the University of Sydney, approximately 3 million tonnes of pesticides are utilized annually to manage unwanted plants, fungi, and bacteria on global crops and fields. Out of this quantity used in fields, 82% breaks down into simpler molecules that have not yet been fully studied for their impact on the environment and biodiversity. The remaining 10% remains in the soil, while 8% seeps into aquifers.

According to the speaker, the pesticide remnants still serve their intended purpose, which leads to a decrease in biodiversity wherever they are carried. This can harm earthworms, amphibians, pollinators, and other unintended organisms.

Director of the IUCN’s global water program, James Dalton, stated that the effects of human pollution can also be observed in groundwater resources. He explained that we often use water without replenishing it in its original source, resulting in a lack of recharge for the groundwater.

“Our usage of water often results in pollution, with some of the pollutants eventually seeping back into the earth. This can have long-term consequences for our future water supply. In the United States, there have been cases of permanently polluted groundwater, as seen in the infamous example of Erin Brockovich.”

He stated that the future will bring challenging decisions. He advocated for improved regulations on groundwater usage, stringent measures on pollutants and their monitoring, and preserving certain areas of land to safeguard the underlying water resources.

Men wearing protective gear clear debris from a tropical beach

There has been a significant change in marine ecosystems.

According to researchers, climate change not only poses a direct danger to humanity, but also poses a significant threat to various forms of life on the planet. Henry Häkkinen, a post-doctoral fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, expressed concern over the impact of warming oceans on seabird populations in Europe. He noted that while these birds already face numerous challenges, such as invasive predators, fishing gear entanglement, and avian influenza, the warming oceans are causing a shift in marine ecosystems that could further threaten their survival. This is particularly concerning as many seabirds rely on cold-water species for food, especially during breeding season. If these food sources disappear, so will the seabirds.

Juan Lucas Restrepo, the head of the Alliance of Bioversity International, cautioned that the climate emergency may pose a significant obstacle to the availability of food in south Asia in the future. He emphasized that climate change will remain a significant factor in shaping the ecosystems of south Asia in the years to come.

The increase in temperatures, extended periods of drought, and severe weather conditions are already altering the natural environment in which various crop species thrive. This is having detrimental effects on crop yields and food availability.

If this pattern persists, it could have a detrimental impact on the environment, society, and economy of the region. It may lead to decreased access to food and higher food costs, ultimately leading to an increase in malnourishment.

Susan Chomba, director of vital landscapes for Africa at the WRI, said navigating the threats posed by the climate crisis in Africa and its ecosystems would have international consequences. “The world can’t solve the hunger crisis, nor the climate crisis, without Africa.

“However, we currently find ourselves in a challenging situation: nearly 60% of the arable land in the continent is damaged. More than 280 million individuals in Africa are experiencing food scarcity. The effects of climate change, such as droughts and cyclones, are reversing progress made in development over the last few decades. Continuing on this course of action will not only negatively impact economies, but also devastate one of the largest carbon-absorbing regions, the Congo basin.”

Chomba stated that the key to hope lies with the 33 million smallholder farmers in Africa who are responsible for producing 70% of the continent’s food and also exporting it. These farmers, from Niger to Kenya, are taking significant strides in transforming damaged land into efficient farms that yield nutritious crops, support biodiversity, and act as important carbon sinks. Across Africa, there is a growing sense of optimism for a new direction.

The following experts also provided their views and helped shape this article: Josef Serttele, Joe Millard, Balkisou Buba, Rukka Sombolinggi, Cristiane Fontes, Charlotte Couch, Erin Matson, Terry Hughes, Stephanie Roe, Zitouni Ould-Dada, Eduardo Brondizio and Chris Carbone

  • Find more age of extinction coverage here

Source: theguardian.com