Some of the planet’s most stunning creatures, including giraffes and parrots, are at risk from global warming and other human-induced environmental change, the UN has warned.
One million species are threatened, a new report has said. Familiar plant species, including dozens of types of oak, are at risk, along with mammals, birds and other animals.
Despite the scale of the issues facing the planet, the UN has said that governments are spending half a trillion dollars a year supporting agriculture, fisheries and fossil fuel industries in ways that harm nature.
In a statement released this week, the UN highlighted the stark findings of a recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an organisation set up to deal with issues related to biodiversity loss.
The UN cited International Union for Conservation of Nature figures that around 31 per cent of the world’s 430 oak species were threatened with extinction.
Tree species are facing several threats including an increase in the frequency of wildfires due to climate change, and deforestation because of industry, agriculture and firewood.
To prevent species extinctions from continuing on a mass scale, Dr Alexander Lees, a reader and conservation biologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said “transformative change” was needed.
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While the setting up of nature reserves, for example, is valuable, he cautioned that people were sometimes engaged in “band aid conservation”.
“We’re trying to fix deep wounds without the tools to do so,” he said.
“We’re stuck trying to save the last few species from extinction. We’re not stopping this huge flow of species on to the global red list [of threatened species] … We’re beyond the simple stuff, where we can protect species x with patch of habitat y.”
It was important to think more about how to use land and to engage in “pre-emptive decision-making” to take action before further deterioration.
Many problems stemmed, he said, from global patterns of consumption and “the endless rush to acquire more stuff”.
The world is often seen as being in the midst of the sixth mass extinction since life emerged about four billion years ago. The most recent previous mass extinction took place about 66 million years ago, wiping out most dinosaurs.
A separate study released by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK found that unusual bird species were likely to be among the most heavily threatened by the destruction of the natural world.
Looking at nearly 8,500 bird species, the scientists found that those with “unique traits” were more likely to be at risk of extinction.
Some analysts have concluded that, as a result, the likes of toucans, puffins and hummingbirds may face particularly uncertain futures.
There would probably be, the researchers wrote in the journal Current Biology, a “decline of species with unique traits and their replacement with more widespread generalist species”.
Dr Lees, who was not connected to the new study, said it was likely to be the case among other organisms, not only birds, that more unusual species were at greater risk in the Anthropocene ― the current, human-dominated, geological age.
“Specialisation, when you’re getting odd lineages evolving odd morphologies [physical traits] to do something very specific, in the Anthropocene that’s often not a winning hand to play, because environments are being changed, land uses are being changed, the climate is changing,” he said.
“If you’re a real specialist and you’ve evolved to do one thing in one location, and that location changes, then you’re in trouble.
“So it does favour the generalist wildlife and we end up getting this homogenisation, not just of species, but also of functional traits. We end up with species that look more similar to each other.”
Responding to the IPBES report, the United Nations Environment Programme warned there would be significant consequences for people if biodiversity was not conserved.
Susan Gardner, director of the organisation’s ecosystems division, said that wild species were “an indispensable source of food, shelter and income for hundreds of millions”.
“By continuing to use these resources unsustainably, we are not just risking the loss and damage of these species’ populations; we are affecting our own health and well-being and that of the next generation,” she said.
Echoing this, Dr Lees said nature was important to people in multiple ways, with impacts on “human health, human well-being and dietary resilience” likely to follow if nature is not conserved.
“And beyond that, why should we care?” he said. “There are probably lots of species that it would be very difficult to say, ‘This species, this incredible beetle here, is fundamental for humankind.’ It probably isn’t at all.
“But conservations biologists like myself think it’s unethical for us to eliminate species … [And] many of us take great pleasure in seeing wild nature.
“There’s myriad reasons why the general public should be interested and should be worried if we end up haemorrhaging this biodiversity.”
The IPBES report emphasises the importance of protecting the rights of indigenous people, because they have a long history of managing areas sustainably.