Photo: AP

There has never been a period like this in the history of humanity. In a sweeping report delivered on Monday, the world’s top scientists warned that up to a million species could go extinct in the next few decades. But crucially, the report also shows the world has a choice about whether to let go of nearly 13 percent of all species or live more in balance with nature. That choice will largely determine our own fate, as well.

The report, which will be released in its entirety later this year and whose summary for policymakers is now available, was put out by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The group fills a similar role to the folks who put out the striking UN climate report last year that warned we have 12 years to drastically start to drawing down emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. But instead of focusing solely on climate change, IPBES looks at the natural world and how humans are influencing it.

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The report synthesizes the most cutting edge research in the field. The findings compiled in one place are no less worrisome or stark compared to its climate counterpart.

“The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history,” the report’s summary for policymakers said.

Much of that change has come in the form of losses. Of the 18 indicators the report analyzes, the past 50 years of human activity caused 15 to decline. That includes declines in biodiversity, habitat, soil health, and air quality. The impacts are clear in every corner of the globe, and they’re becoming worse. Corals are cooking to death in increasingly hot oceans. Ditto for tropical forests when they’re not being chopped down and turned into farms. Diseases such as chytrid have ridden the globalized system of trade, wiping out amphibians in the process.

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“Life on earth is deteriorating fast worldwide,” Josef Settele, an ecologist at the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research and report co-chair, said at a press conference.

There are an estimated 8 million species of planets and animals on Earth. Amphibians are among the hardest hit by human activities with an estimated 40 percent under threat. But no groups of plants or animals are in the clear. The report warns a million could be wiped out if humanity keeps delivering blows to nature. Even the status quo is untenable: an estimated 500,000 land species already don’t have sufficient habitat for long-term survival.

Overall, humans have now directly altered three-quarters of the globe and the rate of global extinction is estimated to be tens to hundreds of times higher now than at any prior moment in human history.

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These declines mean the world is almost certain to miss meeting biodiversity targets set up by the United Nations. And those targets aren’t just handy boxes for the UN to check for fun. They’re set to help ensure we don’t permanently wipe out species and ecosystems which are essential to human survival. The report shows, for example, that $235-$577 billion of crops—up to 22 percent of global total crop output—are at risk due to pollinator loss while land degradation has decreased productivity in other parts of the world. With the global population set to rise to 9 billion by 2050, conservation is about more than touchy feely walk in the woods vibes (thought the report also shows enjoyment of nature is one of its undeniable benefits). It’s about ensuring everyone has enough to eat.

Despite the dire picture, Sandra Díaz, a report co-chair and ecologist at Argentina’s National University of Córdoba, said that “the battle is not lost yet.”

The report identifies a number of levers policymakers could pull to get humanity back in harmony with nature. They include stronger environmental protection laws, managing natural systems to be resilient, and global cooperation towards common goals. Diaz said scenarios the researchers modeled that focus on “transformative change, including nature-friendly, socially fair climate adaptation” show that nature and humanity can co-exist. 

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As with climate change, the report definitively shows that inaction is no longer an option and time is running out to avert the worst impacts of biodiversity loss. Now it’s up to policymakers to take the report’s findings and choose how to act on them.

“We cannot tackle nature deterioration [separately] from climate change and our social goals,” Eduardo Brondizio, an anthropologist at the University of Indiana who worked on the report, said at the press conference. “They are interconnected.”

This article has been updated to clarify that the full IPBES report will be available later this year.

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