The world's living creatures are disappearing at unprecedented rates — here's what we stand to lose, according to a landmark UN report

National GeographicA snow leopard at a regular scent-marking site within its range in the Himalayas.

The climate crisis his hitting Earth’s plants and animals with a one, two punch. breakdown has reached dire straits. As oceans heat up and surface temperatures rise (four of the last five years have been the warmest on record for the planet, other consequences of human activity are also altering the planet’s natural habitats on an unprecedented scale.

Yesterday, the United Nations released a summary of a report from its Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that assesses the state of our planet’s biodiversity. The authors found that between 500,000 and 1 million plant and animals species face extinction, many within decades.

The report reiterates that there’s just one factor to blame for this troubling trend: us. Pollution, deforestation, and habitat loss due to farming and development have already “severely altered” 75% of all land and 40% of marine environments, it says.

“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the authors wrote.

Read More:
Up to 1 million species are facing extinction. Without them, we could run out of food.

These alarming findings lend further credence to the notion that we’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history – the sixth time global species have experienced a major collapse in numbers.

“Observing these declines in species abundance is sort of like reading obituaries,” Hugh Possingham, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, told Business Insider.

Here’s what the world stands to lose in the coming decades, according to the UN report.

There are an estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth (including 5.5 million insect species). Of those 8 million, up to 1 million are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

Source: IPBES

Human activity has already driven 680 mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish species to extinction since the 1500s.

Simon Pierre BarretteThe last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Humans hunted the bird to extinction.

Source: IPBES

According to the report, the rate at which global species are now going extinct is “at least tens to hundreds of times higher” than the average rate over the last 10 million years.

Getty Images

Source: IPBES

Already, more than 500,000 land species don’t have enough of their natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

Source: IPBES

About 10% of the world’s insect species are threatened with extinction. Their disappearance could be detrimental to our ability to grow food.

Insects like bees, hoverflies, and other pollinators perform a crucial role in fruit, vegetable, and nut production. Plus, bugs are food sources for many bird, fish, and mammal species – some of which humans rely on for food.

The UN report calculated that the projected declines in the number of of wild bees and other pollinators puts up to $US577 billion in annual crop production at risk.

Almost 33% of reef-forming corals are threatened with extinction. About 50% of coral in reefs has already been lost since 1870.

A. Bourque/National Park ServiceCoral reefs are dying because of pollution and warming oceans.

Source: IPBES

More than one-third of the world’s marine mammals are also threatened with extinction.

Jonas Liebschner / Whale Watching SydneyHumpback whales breach in unison off the coast of Sydney, Australia.

Whales, in particular, are at risk from excessive plastic pollution. In the past two years, at least five whales have died after ingesting too much plastic, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In April 2019, a dead sperm whale washed up on the shores of Porto Cervo in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds of plastic in its belly. The contents of the whale’s stomach included a corrugated tube, plastic plates, shopping bags, tangled fishing lines, and a detergent package with the brand and bar code still legible.

A third of sharks are at risk of extinction, too, according to the report.

More than 40% of all amphibian species (that includes frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts) are threatened with extinction.

Brad Wilson/GettyAtelopus zeteki, a Panamanian Golden Frog, photographed outside El Valle, Panama.

Another recent study published in the journal Current Biology echoed the UN report’s findings, noting that amphibians are among the most highly threatened groups of animals worldwide, with at least 2,000 species in danger of extinction.

Domesticated animals used for food and agriculture are going extinct as well. More than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had gone extinct by 2016.

At least 1,000 more breeds are still threatened. These domesticated species underpin our global food supply, so their extinction would pose a grave threat.

The report is adamant that human activity is the reason so many species are facing extinction.

More than 85% of the wetland areas that were present in 1700 have already been lost. More than 79 million acres of primary or recovering forest disappeared between 2010 and 2015 alone.

Land degradation, meanwhile, has reduced the productivity of 23% of the planet’s usable land. These disruptions and the degradation of animals’ natural habitats are undoubtedly accelerating the rate of extinctions, according to the report.

Changes in how people farm and fish are also causing problems. In 2015, one-third of global marine fish stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels.

The report noted that more than 55% of the world’s oceans are affected by industrial fishing.

The invasion of alien species is also causing some creatures to go extinct. In 21 countries, there has been a 70% increase in the number of invasive species since 1970.

Corfoto/Getty ImagesZebra mussels shells pile up on a beach in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan. The Zebra mussel is an invasive species in the Great Lakes.

An alien species is any kind of animal, plant, fungus, or bacteria that isn’t native to an ecosystem. Some can be invasive, meaning they cause harm to the environment into which they’re introduced.

A study published in February found that roughly one-third of all plant and animal extinctions since the 1500s were at least partially caused by the introduction of alien species.

Human activity is responsible for the spread of many invasive species. People can carry various species with them between continents, countries, or regions when they travel. Shipments of goods and cargo can also lead to an invasive species’ spread.

Pollution also plays a role in these accelerating extinction rates. Plastic pollution worldwide has increased tenfold since 1980.

The Ocean Cleanup

What’s more, up to 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge, and industrial waste get dumped into oceans and rivers each year.

The report also noted that humans are extracting 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources globally each year — double the amount in 1980.

David McNew/Stringer/Getty ImagesIn 2015, the United States had approximately 300,000 hydraulically fractured wells, which accounted for 67 per cent of U.S. natural gas production and 51 per cent of U.S. crude oil production.

Source: IPBES

The report’s authors are not wholly pessimistic, though. They say the extinction trend can still be reversed or halted — but doing so would take large-scale global action and cooperation.

Justin Sullivan/GettyWorkers weed a cantaloupe field on April 23, 2015 in Firebaugh, California.

The authors suggest, for example, that governments strengthen and enforce environmental laws that eliminate illegal logging and fishing, reduce pollution, and help farmers grow more food on less land.

“We have 10 to 15 years in which we can reverse this,” Possingham said. “We don’t have to stop people from eating, or using electricity, or breeding – we just have to be cleverer about how we use the land we live on.”

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