1 Million Species at Risk of Extinction, Intergovernmental Report Finds

A Hawksbill Sea Turtle, which is listed as a critically endangered species.

A Hawksbill Sea Turtle, which is listed as a critically endangered species. Caroline S. Rogers/NOAA

Nature is declining at an “unprecedented” rate due to human activity, with 1 million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, many within the next few decades, according to a new comprehensive report from 145 of the world’s leading scientists. About 75 percent of terrestrial environments and two-thirds of marine environments have been significantly altered by human actions, the report found.

The assessment “presents an ominous picture,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a scientific collaboration among 132 countries that produced the report. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

According to the report:

  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are used for crop or livestock production.
  • Much of the loss of intact ecosystems has been caused by recent agricultural expansion in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. One hundred million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, mainly from cattle ranching in Latin America and palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia.
  • More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
  • The distributions of almost half of terrestrial mammals and almost a quarter of threatened birds have already been negatively affected by climate change.
  • At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction by human actions since the 16th century.
  • More than 85 percent of the wetlands present in 1700 were lost by 2000. The loss of wetlands is currently three times faster than forest loss.

The assessment, which examined 15,000 scientific and government sources and took three years to write, found that unless nations undergo “transformative changes” this loss of biodiversity will cause significant developmental, economic, security, social, and moral issues. But despite the massive scale of the damage, scientists argue there is still time to avoid the worst impacts of this loss of nature.

“It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” Watson said. “Nature can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals.”