NEWS: A ‘mass extinction event’ is under way

BARELY a week after the demise of the Sumatran rhino was highlighted in this column, a major United Nations assessment to be released today in Paris is expected to spell out the possible extinction of up to a million species, many within decades.

BARELY a week after the demise of the Sumatran rhino was highlighted in this column, a major United Nations assessment to be released today in Paris is expected to spell out the possible extinction of up to a million species, many within decades.

Conducted over the last three years, the assessment of nature was carried out by 800 experts assembled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). They painstakingly catalogued how humanity undermines the natural resources which its very survival depends upon.

The loss of clean air, drinkable water, carbon dioxide-absorbing forests, pollinating insects, protein-rich fish and storm-blocking mangroves, to name but a few of nature’s services, poses no less of a threat than climate change, and indeed the two issues are closely linked, according to Sir Robert Watson, my successor to the IPBES Chair.

Delegates from 130 nations, including Malaysia, have been in Paris since April 29 — they have vetted line by line a 44-page summary (for policymakers) of the 1,800-page assessment of scientific literature and indigenous and local knowledge, citing 15,000 references.

Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity look to the report as the central scientific basis for new, post-2020 biodiversity targets to be set next year in China.

“We need to recognise that climate change and loss of nature are equally important, not just for the environment, but as development and economic issues as well,” said Watson.

“The way we produce our food and energy is undermining the regulating services that we get from nature and only transformative changes can stem the damage,” he added.

Scientists estimate that the earth is today home to some eight million distinct plant and animal species, a majority of them insects. Many are being crowded, eaten or poisoned out of existence. The pace of loss “is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years”, according to early reports on the draft IPBES document.

Many experts think a “mass extinction event”— the sixth in the last half-billion years — is under way. The drop in sheer numbers is even more dramatic, with wild mammal biomass — their collective weight — down by 82 per cent. Humans and livestock account for more than 95 per cent of mammal biomass.

The direct causes of species loss include shrinking habitat and land-use change, hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts, climate change, pollution, and species transported to new homes, invading the habitat.

“There are also two big indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change — the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume,” said Watson.

The shift in the distribution of species will likely double if the average temperature rises between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius — an improbable optimistic scenario, some experts believe, given the level of efforts so far to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations committed to actions to cap emissions so that the temperature rise is limited to “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius. A UN climate report in October, however, warned that even that rise would still be enough to boost the intensity and frequency of deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms.

Other findings expected in the report include:

THREE-QUARTERS of land surfaces, 40 per cent of the marine environment, and 50 per cent of inland waterways across the globe have been “severely altered”;

MANY of the areas where nature’s contribution to human wellbeing will be most severely compromised are home to indigenous peoples and the world’s poorest communities that are also vulnerable to climate change;

MORE than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy, four billion rely on natural medicines, and more than 75 per cent of global food crops require animal pollination; and

SUBSIDIES to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining and the production of biofuel or fossil fuel energy encourage waste, inefficiency and over-consumption.

The report cautioned against climate change solutions that may inadvertently harm nature. The use, for example, of biofuels combined with “carbon capture and storage” — the sequestration of carbon dioxide released when biofuels are burned — is widely seen as key in the transition to green energy on a global scale. But the land needed to grow all those biofuel crops may wind up cutting into food production, the expansion of protected areas or reforestation efforts.

Often described as the “IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for Biodiversity”, IPBES is the global science-policy forum tasked with providing the best available evidence to all decision-makers for people and nature.

We can only hope that the world’s conscience will be pricked to set ambitious new targets in 2020 and to take on their accomplishment with a sense of urgency that befits the catastrophic future outlined in this benchmark IPBES report.

The writer is the founding chair of the IPBES (2013 – 2016) and the 2018 Midori Biodiversity Prize laureate

*** SOURCE: This article first appeared on New Straits Times Online written by Zakri Abdul Hamid