Experts have warned that if the ongoing destruction of nature around the world continues, it could lead to significant disruptions in food sources and access to clean water. This could also result in the extinction of distinct species and the destruction of scenic areas that hold importance in human society, all by the middle of the 21st century.
If we don’t fulfill our pledges to address the five main causes of nature depletion, essential natural systems could collapse around the same time that the human population is expected to reach its highest point in 2050.
The Guardian reached out to prominent scientists, Indigenous leaders, and conservationists worldwide to discuss the potential effects of not taking action against the loss of biodiversity by the middle of the 21st century. Despite the fact that 1 million species of plants and animals are in danger of disappearing, and natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and extreme weather are becoming more frequent due to the climate crisis, the protection of nature is being caught in the crossfire of cultural battles in many nations. This has led to resistance against environmental policies.
Experts from all continents have cautioned that if no action is taken by the middle of the century, there could be extinctions, a rapid increase in invasive species (which can bring new diseases), widespread plastic pollution, declining fish populations, and disappearing forests.
According to the IUCN red list, over 25% of plant and animal species that have undergone detailed conservation evaluations are in danger of disappearing.
“I am deeply saddened by the ongoing destruction of natural habitats in my home country, Brazil,” stated Alexandre Antonelli, the Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “From the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests to the Cerrado shrublands, these areas are home to a diverse array of insects, orchids, fungi, and microorganisms. Sadly, the land that has been inhabited by jaguars and toucans for centuries is now being rapidly lost. The causes of biodiversity decline are evident and science offers effective solutions, but time is of the essence.”
According to studies, in order to prevent potential damage, humans must take action to restore nature globally. This includes implementing eco-friendly farming methods, decreasing meat consumption, controlling the spread of invasive species, and significantly reducing the reliance on fossil fuels.
During the Cop15 summit on biodiversity in December, governments reached a consensus on 23 objectives, one of which is to rehabilitate 30% of the world’s damaged ecosystems on land, inland waters, coasts, and oceans. However, governments have yet to successfully meet any of their previously set goals to combat nature loss, and experts stress the need for urgent action.
‘One word: desert’
According to Sandra Myrna Díaz, an Argentinian biologist and co-chair of the 2019 IPBES assessment, the main cause of biodiversity decline in the last 50 years has been changes in land use.
In the coming years, if these patterns persist, the quality of soil is expected to worsen as a result of erosion caused by frequent and intensive cultivation, as well as contamination from pesticides and increased salt content. Additionally, the amount of natural areas accessible to the general public will continue to decrease.
According to researchers, humanity has deforested approximately one-third of the world’s forests for agriculture in the last 10,000 years. This has resulted in the destruction of crucial ecosystems like tropical rainforests, known for their high levels of biodiversity.
However, specialists caution that distinct dry landscapes are also in danger. According to Emma Archer, a faculty member of geography and environmental science at the University of Pretoria, the Karoo landscape in South Africa is undergoing transformations due to evolving agricultural practices, heightened mining and renewable energy investments, and the effects of climate change.
“If we do not gain a deeper understanding and take action to address the interplay of these various factors on this valuable biodiverse environment, including one of the most diverse desert ecosystems on the planet, the consequences will be grave.”
Cristiane Julião, a member of the Indigenous Pankararu community in the Brazilian Amazon, cautions that changes in land use can have interconnected effects on biodiversity loss. Without conservation efforts, the future of both the world and our people could be described as a desert.
I am from the Brazilian Amazon, and I believe that if the global economic system continues to prioritize profit and exploitation over the well-being of our planet and people, it will result in a desert where my community resides. It is crucial that we change our current path of development in order to preserve our knowledge, customs, and traditions that are vital to the survival of animals, plants, and the climate.
Invasive species on the march
An assessment conducted by the United Nations last month revealed that invasive species are now a costly issue, with the potential to worsen if conservation measures are not taken. Over 3,500 harmful invasive species have been identified worldwide, largely due to human transportation and trade. These species are also contributing to natural disasters, as seen in the recent deadly wildfires in Hawaii.
Aníbal Pauchard, professor of forest science at the University of Concepción, who helped lead the expert UN assessment, said that without action, by 2050 Chile “will have lost its ecological uniqueness and will be less suitable for nature and people.” About a quarter of Chile’s biodiversity is not found anywhere else on Earth due to natural barriers including the Atacama desert, the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.
According to Pauchard, invasive species pose a danger. These non-native species that are present in excessive numbers can displace the natural ecosystems and lead to the extinction of native species, particularly those found only in Chile, while also significantly reducing the population of other species.
Hanno Seebens, a researcher at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, warned that the increasing temperatures and invasion of non-native species may result in disease-carrying animals expanding into new ecosystems in Europe. He stated that ongoing climate change could potentially facilitate the spread of species like the Tiger mosquito into different regions of Europe.
According to Seebens, if no changes occur, the amount of invasive species in Europe is predicted to increase by two times by 2050.
According to Professor Peter Stoett, co-chair of the UN assessment on invasive species, without implementing stronger biosecurity measures, the presence of invasive species in North America poses a threat to human health, native biodiversity, and the economy. The assessment, which spanned over four years, highlighted the potential consequences of failing to address this issue.
“The presence of invasive grasses will persist in causing combustion and forest fires, while their invasion of coastal areas will also pose a threat to fisheries. Additionally, the effects of climate change may increase the spread of zebra mussels and other invasive species in the Great Lakes, and there is particular concern about the vulnerability of the Arctic. It is crucial to intensify control efforts in order to prevent drastic changes in this ecosystem,” he stated.
“Collaboration on a global scale is essential.”
Experts predict that the current consumption rate of humans would require 1.7 planet Earths to sustain. As the shift towards green energy demands more resources, researchers suggest that mining companies must discover alternative extraction techniques that reduce harm to the environment.
According to Dr. Charles Barber, an expert on biodiversity at the World Resources Institute (WRI), the increase in mining for renewable energy resources will lead miners to encroach on the remaining areas of biodiversity in the next 25 years. While these minerals are necessary, we must find more sustainable and less harmful methods of mining to prevent a catastrophic impact on biodiversity.
Unai Pascual, a researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, expressed concern about the impact of population growth and urbanization on resource demand. He emphasized the importance of proper management to ensure the preservation of natural spaces in urban areas.
According to Pascual, the majority of the estimated 10 billion people in the world by 2050 will reside in urban areas. As a result, there will be a greater need for energy to handle the increasing complexity of urban life. This will also lead to a higher demand for extracting natural resources, posing serious threats to the health of ecosystems. Additionally, a larger portion of the population will become disconnected from nature, both in terms of physical access and psychological connection.
According to Pascual, if we fail to take efficient action to safeguard and improve urban biodiversity, it is highly probable that we will witness increased hardship among the most disadvantaged urban residents.
After many years of excessive fishing of important species for human consumption, the decline of fisheries is emphasized as a danger by various specialists, particularly due to the dangers of global warming. Dr. Jean-Marc Fromentin, from the marine conservation organization UMR Marbec, stated: “If significant measures are not taken, the ocean’s productivity and the global fish catch will significantly decrease as a result of rising sea temperatures and acidification caused by climate change.”
He mentioned that tropical oceans will experience a significant decrease, particularly affecting wild fish which are crucial for food security in nearby coastal communities.
Surangel Whipps Jr, president of the Pacific country of Palau and co-chair of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, said the world could learn from his country’s customs: “Palau’s bul tradition, a sustainable practice of pausing fishing to replenish stocks, has nourished our generations.
According to him, international collaboration is essential. Relying solely on sustainability efforts within our exclusive economic zone is not enough to ensure the world’s access to food, air, and water.
‘Permanently contaminated groundwater’
Experts are emphasizing that the accumulation of plastics, chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers in natural environments poses a significant risk to biodiversity. They are calling for urgent measures to address this issue, with Dr. Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, stating that taking action is crucial in order to prevent further contamination of critical ecosystems with additional waste.
“When we released our worldwide calculation of microplastic in the Earth’s oceans, with an average of 170 trillion particles, we also uncovered a concerning and growing pattern. According to our findings, this figure is projected to quadruple by 2050, potentially surpassing the ability of our planet’s systems to manage such a high level of pollution,” he stated.
The significance of a robust international agreement on plastic pollution is highlighted, as it is currently being discussed. We cannot simply rely on recycling to solve this issue.
According to Federico Maggi, a researcher at the University of Sydney, approximately 3 million tonnes of pesticides are utilized annually in order to manage unwanted plants, fungi, and bacteria on agricultural land. Out of this amount, 82% breaks down into smaller molecules that have not been thoroughly studied for their impact on the environment and biodiversity. The remaining 10% remains in the soil, while 8% seeps into underground water sources.
According to him, the leftover chemicals from pesticides continue to serve their intended purpose, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity wherever they are carried. This can negatively affect species such as earthworms, amphibians, and pollinators, along with other unintended organisms.
Director of the IUCN global water program, James Dalton, noted that human pollution is affecting groundwater. He explained that when we use water, we often don’t replenish the underground sources, leading to a lack of recharge for excess water taken.
We contaminate the water that we use, and some of the harmful substances return to the soil. This eventually seeps into our future water sources, potentially causing permanent damage. In the United States, there are cases of polluted groundwater that cannot be remediated, as portrayed in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
In the future, we will face challenging decisions. He emphasized the need for improved regulations on groundwater usage, more stringent measures for controlling and monitoring pollutants, and preserving certain areas of land to safeguard the underlying water resources.
There has been a significant change in marine ecosystems.
According to researchers, while climate change poses a direct danger to humanity, it also poses a significant risk to various forms of life on Earth. This threat is often unexpected and can have severe consequences. Henry Häkkinen, a post-doctoral fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, expressed concerns about the impact of warming oceans on seabirds in Europe. He explained that these birds already face numerous challenges, including invasive predators, fishing gear entanglement, and avian influenza. However, the warming seas are causing a major shift in marine ecosystems, which is disrupting the availability of cold-water species that seabirds rely on for food, especially during their breeding season. As a result, the disappearance of their food source could also lead to the decline of seabird populations.
Juan Lucas Restrepo, director general of Alliance of Bioversity International, warned that the climate crisis could present a major challenge to future food supplies in south Asia. “Climate change will continue to be a major driver of changes of [south Asian] ecosystems in the coming decades.
The increasing heat, extended periods of dryness, and severe weather conditions are already changing the environment where numerous crop types thrive … resulting in harmful effects on crop production and the availability of food.
This poses a significant danger to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the region. If this pattern persists, it will restrict the availability of food and lead to higher prices, ultimately resulting in a rise in undernourishment.
“The international implications of addressing the challenges presented by the climate crisis and its impact on African landscapes cannot be ignored,” stated Susan Chomba, the Africa director for vital landscapes at the WRI. “Without Africa’s involvement, neither the issue of hunger nor the issue of climate change can truly be solved.”
“Currently, we are encountering a severe challenge: nearly 60% of the arable land in Africa is damaged. More than 280 million people in Africa are experiencing food insecurity. The impact of climate-related droughts and cyclones is undoing the progress made in development over the last few decades. Continuing down this path will have negative effects on countries’ economies and destroy a vital carbon sink, the Congo basin.”
Chomba stated that the key to hope lies in the 33 million smallholder farmers across Africa. These farmers are responsible for producing over 70% of the continent’s food and also contribute to exports. From Niger to Kenya, these farmers are making significant progress by transforming degraded land into productive farms that yield nutritious crops and also serve as important carbon sinks. This positive trend is being observed throughout Africa and it offers hope for a better future.
The article was enriched by the insights of the following experts: Josef Serttele, Joe Millard, Balkisou Buba, Rukka Sombolinggi, Cristiane Fontes, Charlotte Couch, Erin Matson, Terry Hughes, Stephanie Roe, Zitouni Ould-Dada, Eduardo Brondizio, and Chris Carbone.
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