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We've Put One Million Species At Risk Of Extinction, New U.N. Report Finds

Emma Loewe
Author:
May 6, 2019
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Felix Hug / Stocksy
May 6, 2019

Today, the world got a preview of the most comprehensive recon of biodiversity to date. Compiled by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the 1,800-page report is a compilation of three years of research on the status of the world's plant and animal species. Surprise, surprise—it's not looking great.

"The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture," IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said in a summary of the upcoming report. "The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever."

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The report found that over 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction—including a third of marine mammal species, 40 percent of amphibian ones, and 33 percent of coral. Factors contributing to the mass biodiversity loss include rampant deforestation (more than a third of our land and 75 percent of our freshwater is now devoted to crop or livestock production) and soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is this report a big deal?

Such a bleak prognosis calls for equally massive action. The report states that "the global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors."

In other words, if we want to protect the natural world from shrinking quick, we need to shift the way we approach just about everything: how we grow our food, how we build our cities, and how we consume natural resources.

According to the scientists and policymakers who compiled the report, this will mean placing less importance on economic growth and instead making decisions based on their potential impact on nature. If this lofty vision sounds impossible on the surface, the report suggests policy that brings it back down to earth, such as working biodiversity measures into existing global frameworks like the Paris Climate Accord.

After all, the future of humanity depends on a species-rich world. Plants and animals of all sorts work in harmony to make the world inhabitable for humans, and without them we would have crippling, trillion-dollar problems. (Think more infectious disease and less food and clean water.) As climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert puts it in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction, "Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed."

So...is there any reason to be hopeful?

The IPBES report is the second one to come out of the United Nations Environment Program in the past year. In October, another by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that if global warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world as we know it could be damaged beyond repair as soon as 2030. This foreboding message was a wake-up call that encouraged many nations to expedite timelines and strengthen goals related to climate change. Take the United Kingdom, which just cited the report as impetus for its proposal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hopefully, this biodiversity report fuels similar overhauls because, not to be dramatic or anything, but the future of our world depends on it. As Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO, writes in reaction to the report, "Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently."

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.