Biodiversity Loss and Planetary Boundaries

updated May 2017

The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a “Red List” of known species threatened with extinction. There are over 24,300 threatened animal species on the 2016 list, including approximately 25% of all mammals and 42% of amphibians. A separate consortium of the world’s leading environmental research organisations reported in 2012 that 85% of coral reefs are threatened in the Coral Triangle, a hotspot of biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

It is estimated that, over the course of the 20th century, human activity was responsible for a rate of species extinction of the order of 100 times the natural background rate. Often described as the “sixth great extinction”, this anthropogenic slaughter is compared with devastating events of geological history such as the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The impact of such unprecedented biodiversity loss is very uncertain. A series of studies published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre since 2009 examines a range of planetary boundaries which circumscribe stability of the natural world. Two of the measures that have already crossed their thresholds are climate change and “biosphere integrity” (referring to the natural state of biodiversity in its varying forms).

The scientists believe that these are the earth’s “core boundaries” and that continued failure to respect the safety thresholds could drive earth systems into a permanently altered state, almost certainly with dire consequences for the human species.

The condition of the oceans represents another example of potential ecosystem boundaries or “tipping points”. Research published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences warns that marine species may lack the ability to adapt to the pace of ocean acidification and warming. Describing the impact of the consequent loss of biodiversity as “overall simplification of ecosystem structure”, the researchers predict that “the future simplification of our oceans has profound consequences for our current way of life, particularly for coastal populations and those that rely on oceans for food and trade.”

The UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 2014 agrees that “it is unlikely that ecosystems can be kept within safe ecological limits given current patterns of consumption.”

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Abundance within planetary boundaries
“We are probably the last generation to be able to act to protect the earth system.” Johan Rockstrom continues to develop the concept of the safe operating space for humanity.

from Virgin Unite


The IUCN Red List: A Barometer of Life – a description of the contents of the Red List of threatened species and its purpose.

more Biodiversity briefings
The Anthropocene
Importance of Biodiversity
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Finance and Economics
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
Source Material and Useful Links

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