The 2018 edition of the highly respected World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report – and its associated Living Planet Index – have just been published, writes Alan Thornett. The Report is the world’s leading, science-based analysis on the health of our planet and the impact of human activity.
The Living Planet Index (LPI) is produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London. It uses data compiled on the basis of 16,704 individual populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species.
The new Report records an overall decline of 60% in species population size between 1970 and 2014. It shows that species population declines are especially pronounced in the tropics (the planet’s richest region), with South and Central America suffering an 89% loss compared to 1970. The report’s Freshwater Living Planet Index shows an 83% decline in fish and other wild life in rivers and lakes since 1970.
The Report, and the LPI, provide us with a detailed audit of the state of wildlife across the globe – and its message is (once again) devastating. It tells us, in effect, that wildlife numbers across the planet are in free-fall and we are responsible for that.
Today, species, the report notes, are becoming extinct 1,000 times faster than the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate that has occurred naturally over millennia. This process is now increasing recognised by the scientific community as the ‘sixth mass extinction’ – the biggest such event the planet has faced since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Species loss, on this scale, the report concludes, ‘not only threaten the survival of the planet’s wild-life but of civilisation as well. Biodiversity loss is now equal to climate change as a direct threat to life on Earth. Our health, food and security, the report notes, depend on biodiversity. From medical treatments to food production, biodiversity is critical to society and people’s well-being’.
The biggest single cause of these losses, the Report makes clear, is the destruction, by human beings, of natural habitats.
The Report summarises it as the ‘overexploitation and agricultural activity, driven by our runaway consumption, are still the dominant causes of current species loss. Land degradation seriously impacts 75% of terrestrial ecosystems, reducing the welfare of more than 3 billion people, with huge economic costs. Bees, other pollinators and our soils are under increasing threat. Overfishing and plastic pollution are threatening our oceans, while pollution, habitat fragmentation and destruction have led to catastrophic declines in freshwater biodiversity.’
Human activities associated with the production or harvesting of food, fibre and energy from terrestrial ecosystems have enormous impacts on biodiversity. Land use for farming affects the balance between wild and domesticated species, ‘the size and quality of habitats, and the non-living chemical and physical parts of the environment that affect living organisms and the functioning of ecosystems.’
The cattle sector of Brazilian Amazon agriculture, for example, driven by the international beef and leather trades, has been responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the region, or about 14% of the world’s total annual deforestation, making it the world’s largest single driver of deforestation. Agriculture uses 70 per cent of all available fresh water worldwide. In fact, the demand for food could double by mid-century – and fresh water usage by a similar amount.
The Report makes it clear that any serious challenge to the way the planet is currently going implies major changes both in the way that society is organised and also in the way that people conduct their lives: what they consume, the travel choices they make and how they organise their lives, and most importantly how much meat they eat.
Marco Lambertini, the Director General of the WWF says in a foreword to the report that few people have found themselves on the cusp of a truly historic transformation, and ‘I passionately that this is where we stand today. Our planet is at the crossroads and we have the opportunity to decide the path ahead.’
We still, he argues, have a choice. ‘We can be the founders of a global movement that changed our relationship with the planet, that saw us secure a future for all life on Earth, including our own. Or we can be the generation that had its chance and failed to act; that let Earth slip away.’
Today, he says, the UN is planning a Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, when new commitments for the protection of nature will hopefully be made. ‘We need a new global deal for nature and people and we have this narrow window of less than two years to get it. This is the last chance and we have to get it right.’
The Report itself concludes with the following:
‘The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our natural systems, yet we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate. It’s clear that efforts to stem the loss of biodiversity have not worked and business as usual will amount to, at best, managed decline. That’s why we, along with conservation and science colleagues around the world are calling for the most ambitious international agreement yet – a new global deal for nature and people – to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. Decision makers at every level from individuals to communities, countries and companies need to make the right political, financial and consumer choices to realise the vision that humanity and nature can thrive.’
That call for a new international agreement is one that should be strongly supported by the whole environmental movement. It’s one we ignore at our peril.