Human knowledge is expanding so fast that the sequence of our discoveries has become disorderly. We have mapped the universe before completing an inventory of life on our own planet.
Scientists have struggled even to estimate the total of our living species. Their best guess lies between 5 million and 30 million. A 2011 study suggested a figure of 8.7 million, acknowledging a considerable margin of error. Only 1.2 million species have actually been identified.
Published by IPBES, the world scientific body responsible for biodiversity policy advice, the 2019 Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Live coral reefs – among the most species-rich habitats on earth – have declined by an average of 4% per decade since 1990.
The IPBES report estimates that human activity is responsible for a rate of species extinction at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the natural background rate. Scientists warn that the accelerating rate of destruction of biodiversity may trigger unpredictable tipping points in our earth support systems.
It is often said that the countries most affected by climate change are those which are least responsible for it and which lack the means to adapt. Exactly the same is true of biodiversity loss. Furthermore, the undignified scramble for raw materials and genetic blueprints occurs largely in the world’s poorest countries, with insufficient reward for local economic development and poverty reduction.
At the same time, limited financial resources available to promote the sustainable use of biodiversity are skewed in favour of richer countries, mirroring the lack of funding for adaptation to climate change. The multiple sense of injustice felt by the less developed countries symbolises the mountain that must be climbed to tackle environmental change in an unequal world.
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.
Indeed, the link between unnaturally high rates of species extinction and human activity is only one of the factors prompting moves towards the formal declaration of a new geological epoch to succeed the Holocene. A decision to usher in the “Anthropocene” now seems probable, given the evidence that humanity will leave a permanent mark on the earth’s geological record.
Such a radical scientific verdict on the state of the planet adds to the frustration of environmentalists at the stuttering international policy response. The challenge of decoupling our dominant economic model from its inherent abuse of nature is proving too much for the insular mindset of contemporary global leadership.
The scientific community continues to seek effective ways to explain why haemorrhaging biodiversity will sooner or later disturb other pieces in the jigsaw of planetary boundaries. Environmental campaigns, too, are considered more effective if presented on a broader canvas in which ecosystems are protected, not just for their intrinsic value, but also to secure basic human needs of food, water and energy.
more Biodiversity briefings (updated March 2021)
Importance of Biodiversity
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
Source material and useful links