When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published their first Living Planet Report 20 years ago, the world was a very different place. Since 1998, there have been unprecedented declines in biodiversity, largely due to the damaging effects of plastic pollution, deforestation and climate change. Given the rapid decline observed in recent years, what does the future hold for biodiversity? And ultimately what does that mean for us?
Compared to the other global environmental issues mentioned above, losing a few species may seem less pressing in terms of its effect on humans. However, the WWF’s estimation that nature provides us with services worth 125 trillion US dollars is a stark indicator that we rely upon nature and biodiversity to live. Nature is not only a vital source of food, medicine, clean water, fuel and shelter but it also forms an essential part of our mental and physical wellbeing. As described by Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), nature is ‘at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life’.
When projecting what the world will be like in years from now, forecasts always seemed to be made for the year 2020. However, with this date fast-approaching, we can no longer look to 2020 as a place in the too far distant future. 2050 has become the new 2020 and if current trends continue, the predictions for life in 3 decades time look pretty grim.
At present, one quarter of land on Earth is considered significantly ‘free’ of human activity, with this set to decline to just one tenth by 2050 when the global population reaches 9.8 billion. This, coupled with projections suggesting that, by 2050, 90% of coral reefs will have disappeared, 99% of all seabird species will contain plastic in their digestive tracts and there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, is surely an urgent reminder for us to re-think our destructive way of living.
Think about it for a minute. What would happen in a world without life?
Pandas, whales, stick insects, oak trees, bamboo, frogs, sea urchins. Loss of countless species such as this would mean that the beauty of the world as we know it no longer exists. The WWF’s most recent Living Planet Index shows that between 1970 and 2014, population sizes demonstrated an overall decline of 60%, with population loss reaching as much as 89% in the tropics. With shocking figures like this revealing that biodiversity is declining at a rate observed only seen in mass extinctions, a world devoid of life could be the reality for future generations.
We are living in a period of the Anthropocene described as The Great Acceleration. Our presence on Earth, and our ever-intensifying consumption and overexploitation of the planet’s resources, is accelerating the rate at which diversity is dying. Human activities such as deforestation, pesticide use, oil spills and plastic pollution are all responsible for habitat degradation, of which species loss has become an inevitable symptom. The last 50 years have seen our consumption of natural resources increase by 190%. With such a huge increase in our Ecological Footprint in this short period, we must now question how much longer we can go before reaching breaking point.
I could easily continue to throw facts and figures at you. But the point here is that we are living above what the planet can sustainably provide and if we continue to ignore the warnings, we, as a species, may not have much longer.
It is only recently that we have really started to appreciate the severity of our human impact on the planet. While there is still time to change our future, our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. We are the first generation to know we are destroying the world, and perhaps the last that can do anything about it.