|The continuing loss of species and natural environments shows how bad humans are at protecting the planet's biodiversity / Photo by: K.DEEPANAASHRI via Wikimedia Commons|
The continuing loss of species and natural environments shows how bad humans are at protecting the planet's biodiversity. Human-led biodiversity loss began because of some of our ancestors, suggesting that the ongoing biological diversity crisis is an acceleration of a process that began millions of years ago.
This process has since resulted in the extinction seen in fossils and various species on the verge of a complete loss. The effects also transcend into economic systems and human society, and solutions should come from a combination of public policy and continued monitoring and education.
The Loss in Numbers
In 2019, a report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) revealed the devastating human impact on nature. The report, drawing from 15,000 reference materials, showed just how much of the planet lost in biodiversity and the threats that humans pose on remaining species.
The world lost 85% of its wetland by 2000, a loss that's currently three times faster compared to forest loss. Human actions have "severely altered" most of the terrestrial and marine environments (75% and 66%, respectively).
Another key takeaway from the report was the decline in the global land area held and managed by Indigenous Peoples (28%). This area includes about 40% of formally protected areas and 37% of all remaining terrestrial areas with very low human intervention.
Given these findings, it's not surprising that plants and wildlife faced disastrous consequences as well. The IPBES indicate that a quarter of the world's species are at risk of extinction—that's one million flora and fauna species.
Amphibians are at the top of the list—with 40% threatened with extinction—followed by conifers (34%), reef corals and marine mammals (33%), sharks and rays (31%), selected crustaceans (27%), mammals (25%), and birds (14%).
While biodiversity loss can naturally occur, human activities are increasing the speed of deterioration. The IPBES report states that human activities are the cause of the massive extinction threat of the world's plant and wildlife.
"The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever," warned Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES. "We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”
Natural biodiversity loss occurs when there are natural ecological disturbances such as wildfire, floods, and volcanic eruptions. The changes that come with these disturbances are more permanent, but the effect they have doesn't cause much harm to ecosystems.
On the other hand, human-caused biodiversity losses are more severe and longer-lasting. The growing population and progressing industries are taking up more shares of Earth's land area, with half of the world's habitable land having been converted to agriculture, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.
This environmentally destructive human behavior began earlier than researchers believed. A new study published in the scientific journal Ecology letters states that the ongoing biological diversity crisis indicates the rapid process that some human ancestors started millions of years ago.
"The extinctions that we see in the fossils are often explained as the results of climatic changes. But the changes in Africa within the last few million years were relatively minor and our analyses show that climatic changes were not the main cause of the observed extinctions," lead author Søren Faurby from Gothenburg University said in a statement.
Their investigation of African fossils shows a drastic reduction in the number of large carnivores that began about four million years ago. The study says this was also the period when human ancestors started a new way to get food known as kleptoparasitism, in which one steals recently killed animals from other predators.
Based on this evidence, the researchers propose a theory that human ancestors stealing from other predators led to the starvation and eventual extinction of those animals. While humans no longer steal from other predators for food, their ways of finding resources, settlement, and trading are now driving biodiversity losses.
Economic and Societal Effects
Although it is not direct, biodiversity loss still affects the world's economic systems and society. People depend on nature for their commodities and the availability of which is vital to many cultures. Food, clothing, building materials, and medicines are just some of the resources at risk due to biodiversity loss.
"The loss of biodiversity among these critical natural resources threatens global food security and the development of new pharmaceuticals to deal with future diseases," Encyclopedia Britannica explains.
It adds that economic scarcities among common food crops would be more noticeable compared to biodiversity loss, in which a lack of biodiversity may leave crop varieties and livestock vulnerable to disease, pests, invasive species, and climate change.
"Mainstream and traditional medicines can be derived from the chemicals in rare plants and animals, and thus lost species represent lost opportunities to treat and cure," the resource website notes.
Addressing Biodiversity Loss and Its Impact
The decline in biodiversity continues to move at a rapid pace, despite the huge losses that have already been done. Soon, these losses will hit rock bottom, be it in the loss of potential sources of new treatments or reduced food stock.
Providing a solution to the impact of biodiversity loss requires a "fundamental shift in economic thought," according to the World Economic Forum. It says enterprises should establish and make measurements that will assess the value of nature in their work central to their business decisions.
Among those at the most vulnerable to ecological destruction, which can take many forms, are the extractives, construction, energy, fashion, and textile industries.
"It is therefore vital for businesses and regulators to make biodiversity a key factor in managing so-called ‘transition risks’ – the problems and costs associated with making business more sustainable - because greater biodiversity makes it more likely that ecosystems will adapt to change," the WEF explains, noting the need for significant public funding to protect and replenish biodiversity.
Meanwhile, conservation biologists recommend a combination of public policy and economic solutions, with support from continuous monitoring and education, as the means to deal with biodiversity loss.
Governments, the private sector, and the scientific community should work together to create laws, economic plans, and incentives for the conservation of natural habitats and protection of the species in them.