This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted,” warns Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, in the foreword of the 2014 report issued on 30 September. Each year, WWF publishes this report: “the world’s leading, science-based analysis on the health of our planet and the impact of human activity.” And Lambertini’s warning is extremely to the point, because among other things, the report finds that biodiversity among vertebrate species (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) has declined by 52% since 1970.
Another report, An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity, released by UNEP and the Convention of Biological Diversity on the occasion of its 12th meeting (6-17 October), finds that ocean acidity has increased by 26% since pre-industrial times. This has long-lasting effects on marine biodiversity.
These two analyses going public at the same time have triggered an alarm as regards biodiversity: is mankind’s activity bound to destroy all other forms of life? And how long can we go on like this?
Biodiversity loss adversely impacts livelihoods
In its 2014 edition, the Living Planet Report reveals somewhat alarming elements on three counts:
– Firstly, theLiving Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52% since 1970.’Put another way, in fewer than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half.’
– Secondly, the Ecological Footprint ‘shows that 1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year.’ The Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date by which we have consumed all the resources our planet can produce in one year, comes earlier each year (in 2014, it was 18 August).
– Thirdly, the water footprint highlights the fact that while we need more and more water to meet the burgeoning needs of a growing population with changing lifestyles (agriculture is very water-intensive, especially livestock farming), supplies of fresh water do not increase. ‘Today, more than a third of the world’s population – about 2.7 billion people – live in river basins that experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year.’
These three elements all provide evidence that mankind does not have a sustainable lifestyle, and that its impact on the planet’s ecosystems is ever heavier. The observation is also supported by the UNEP & Convention on Biological Diversity report on marine biodiversity: ‘ocean acidification has increased by around 26% since pre-industrial times and (…), based on historical evidence, recovery from such changes in ocean pH can take many thousands of years.’ This is because acidification, which is caused by the ocean sequestrating larger quantities of CO2, impacts the physiology, sensory systems and behaviour of marine organisms. Its interference with the way fauna and flora behave and interactundermines the health of the ecosystem. The analysis warns:
‘It is now nearly inevitable that within 50 to 100 years, continued anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will further increase ocean acidity to levels that will have widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide.’
Union and leadership for change
The loss of biodiversity is an issue for the Earth’s global balance and health and, as a consequence, for the people who inhabit it. Ecosystems provide us with food, income, shelter, energy, transformable natural resources, etc. ‘Social and economic sustainability is only possible with a healthy planet. Ecosystems nourish societies that create economies. It does not work in any other way,’ as the Living Planet Report points out. ‘We riskundermining social and economic gains by failing to appreciate our fundamental dependency on ecological systems.’
It goes on to detail that forests provide livelihoods and resources to 2 billion people as well as regulating the climate, and that marine ecosystems are responsible for more than 660 million jobs. There is economic value in our natural capital, and it will be impossible to sustain mankind’s way of life if we keep squandering it.
As worrying as they are, the results of these studies should encourage mankind to take action now. We need to ‘close this destructive chapter in our history, and build a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature,’ writes Lambertini. It is not too late. He calls for unity and collaboration between the public, private and civil sectors in society; for bold, global leadership in bringing about change – the responsibility of heads of state –, and for a change in consumption behaviours from companies and citizens, who ‘need to stop behaving as if we live in a limitless world.’ These ideas are at the root of many intergovernmental initiatives, and environmental protection has been shored up by a series of tools and regulations; but there is still a great deal to be done, and nothing can happen without strong political willpower. On a more pragmatic note, the report on marine biodiversity acknowledges that, even if effective action does significantly curb carbon emissions, ocean acidification will still last thousands of years. And that will bring about changes we will have to learn to live with.
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