Largest study on impact of modern civilization on nature

A report published by the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the largest comprehensive study into the impact of modern civilization on nature, backed by 130 countries, cautioned this May that the rate of extinction of animals and plant species is accelerating with dire consequences to man.  Warns Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES “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.”  However, amidst alarming stats and conclusions with 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction  he says “The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.”

A snapshot of the key findings highlighted in a release by Reuters (Paris) this week, knit a picture together on the interconnectivity of the issues we face, where and how:

BIODIVERSITY IMPACTS: PLANTS AND ANIMALS ACCELERATING LOSS: Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, leaving a million species now at risk of extinction, some within decades.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: Nature managed by indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure but generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.

SPECIES DECLINE: The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900, and there has been a 30 percent reduction in global terrestrial habitat integrity caused by habitat loss and deterioration.

EXPONENTIAL RATES: The current rate of global species extinction is tens to hundreds times higher than the average over the last 10 million years, and the rate is accelerating.

MARINE CREATURES: Around 40 percent of amphibian species are threatened with extinction, along with 33 percent of reef forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and more than 33 per cent of marine mammals.

CLIMATE CHANGE HOLISTIC APPROACH: The world cannot save the climate without saving biodiversity and vice versa, since the natural systems that sustain life on Earth are intimately interconnected.

NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS: Many of the most promising responses to climate change, such as protecting and restoring forests and wetlands, sustainable agriculture and respecting indigenous knowledge, also protect biodiversity and human wellbeing.

ACCELERATING EXTINCTION: Using climate scenarios generated by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authors found that 16 per cent of species would be at risk of extinction if the world follows its current trajectory of 4.3 degrees Celsius of warming compared to pre-industrial levels.

PROFOUND IMPACTS: Even if the world manages to limit warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, the ranges of most terrestrial species are projected to shrink profoundly.

LIMITED WARNING: Many of the policies that scientists hope could limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees would also deliver the greatest chance of preserving the most biodiversity possible.

FOOD, AGRICULTURE AND FORESTS PRIME CULPRIT: Land clearing for farming is a key driver of biodiversity loss. The sector is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions through land clearing, crop production and fertilization – with animal-based foods the biggest contributors.

DIMINISHING SOILS: 23 percent of land areas have seen a reduction in agricultural productivity due to land degradation, which could be mitigated by a shift towards restorative farming practices and smallholding, which is better for the environment.

VANISHING POLLINATORS: 75 percent of global food crop types rely on animal pollination, yet the loss of pollinators caused by intensive farming is putting $235-577 billion worth of annual global crop output at risk.

DARK MONEY: 68 percent of foreign capital invested in the soy and beef sectors, which is driving deforestation in the Amazon, is channeled through tax havens.

DAMAGING SUBSIDIES: In 2015, an estimated $100 billion of financial support in wealthy OECD countries was used to finance agricultural practices that are potentially harmful to the environment.

OCEANS, FISHING AND AQUACULTURE OVER-FISHING: Major marine fish stocks are disappearing due to overfishing; 33 percent of such stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015.

INDUSTRIAL SCALE: Industrial fishing fleets are now roving across 55 per cent of the world’s ocean area, and sustainable practices are taking place on too small a scale to meaningfully address the over-fishing crisis.

BIG BUSINESS: Billions of dollars worth of the annual subsidies awarded to boost the capacity of the world’s fishing fleets may have a negative impact on nature.

FEWER FISH: Fish biomass is projected to decrease by 3-25 percent by the end of the century in low and high climate warming scenarios, respectively.

DEAD ZONES: Pollution from fertilizers has led to the formation of 400 low oxygen ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters covering more than 245,000 square kilometers.

According to the IPBES media release the report with more than 15000 references was worked on by 145 leading experts from 50 countries, including contributions from 310 additional experts and “presents a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others. It highlights the importance of, among others, adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.  Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.”

 “This is a devastating reality check. Governments must start putting people and planet ahead of corporate interests and greed and act with the urgency this report demands. Leaders must adopt strong targets and implementation plans to protect biodiversity with the participation and consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities at the global nature summit in China next year (COP15). Profiteering has pushed nature to the brink, placing our own survival in peril due to overexploitation of the natural world and worsening climate change.” Christoph Thies, Greenpeace Germany Forests And Climate Campaigner

IPBES highlights Key Issues from the Report

Scale of Loss of Nature

Gains from societal and policy responses, while important, have not stopped massive losses.

Since 1970, trends in agricultural production, fish harvest, bioenergy production and harvest of materials have increased, in response to population growth, rising demand and technological development, this has come at a steep price, which has been unequally distributed within and across countries. Many other key indicators of nature’s contributions to people however, such as soil organic carbon and pollinator diversity, have declined, indicating that gains in material contributions are often not sustainable.

The pace of agricultural expansion into intact ecosystems has varied from country to country. Losses of intact ecosystems have occurred primarily in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. For example, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, resulting mainly from cattle ranching in Latin America (about 42 million hectares) and plantations in South-East Asia (about 7.5 million hectares, of which 80% is for palm oil, used mostly in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel) among others.

Since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion), rising unevenly across countries and regions; and per capita gross domestic product is four times higher – with ever-more distant consumers shifting the environmental burden of consumption and production across regions.

The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.

The numbers of invasive alien species per country have risen by about 70% since 1970, across the 21 countries with detailed records.

The distributions of almost half (47%) of land-based flightless mammals, for example, and almost a quarter of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by climate change.  

Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities and Nature

At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by Indigenous Peoples. These areas include approximately 35% of the area that is formally protected, and approximately 35% of all remaining terrestrial areas with very low human intervention.

Nature managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands – although 72% of local indicators developed and used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities show the deterioration of nature that underpins local livelihoods.

The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature’s contributions to people are also areas in which large concentrations of Indigenous Peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities reside.

Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways. Recognition of the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration and sustainable use. Their positive contributions to sustainability can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities.

Global Targets and Policy Scenarios

Past and ongoing rapid declines in biodiversity, ecosystem functions and many of nature’s contributions to people mean that most international societal and environmental goals, such as those embodied in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will not be achieved based on current trajectories.

The authors of the Report examined six policy scenarios – very different ‘baskets’ of clustered policy options and approaches, including ‘Regional Competition’, ‘Business as Usual’ and ‘Global Sustainability’ – projecting the likely impacts on biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people of these pathways by 2050. They concluded that, except in scenarios that include transformative change, the negative trends in nature, ecosystem functions and in many of nature’s contributions to people will continue to 2050 and beyond due to the projected impacts of increasing land and sea use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change.

Policy Tools, Options and Exemplary Practices

Policy actions and societal initiatives are helping to raise awareness about the impact of consumption on nature, protecting local environments, promoting sustainable local economies and restoring degraded areas. Together with initiatives at various levels these have contributed to expanding and strengthening the current network of ecologically representative and well-connected protected area networks and other effective area-based conservation measures, the protection of watersheds and incentives and sanctions to reduce pollution .

The Report presents an illustrative list of possible actions and pathways for achieving them across locations, systems and scales, which will be most likely to support sustainability. Taking an integrated approach:

In agriculture, the Report emphasizes, among others: promoting good agricultural and agroecological practices; multifunctional landscape planning (which simultaneously provides food security, livelihood opportunities, maintenance of species and ecological functions) and cross-sectoral integrated management. It also points to the importance of deeper engagement of all actors throughout the food system (including producers, the public sector, civil society and consumers) and more integrated landscape and watershed management; conservation of the diversity of genes, varieties, cultivars, breeds, landraces and species; as well as approaches that empower consumers and producers through market transparency, improved distribution and localization (that revitalizes local economies), reformed supply chains and reduced food waste.

In marine systems, the Report highlights, among others: ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management; spatial planning; effective quotas; marine protected areas; protecting and managing key marine biodiversity areas; reducing run- off pollution into oceans and working closely with producers and consumers.

In freshwater systems, policy options and actions include, among others: more inclusive water governance for collaborative water management and greater equity; better integration of water resource management and landscape planning across scales; promoting practices to reduce soil erosion, sedimentation and pollution run-off; increasing water storage; promoting investment in water projects with clear sustainability criteria; as well as addressing the fragmentation of many freshwater policies.

In urban areas, the Report highlights, among others: promotion of nature-based solutions; increasing access to urban services and a healthy urban environment for low-income communities; improving access to green spaces; sustainable production and consumption and ecological connectivity within urban spaces, particularly with native species.

Across all examples, the Report recognises the importance of including different value systems and diverse interests and worldviews in formulating policies and actions. This includes the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in governance, the reform and development of incentive structures and ensuring that biodiversity considerations are prioritised across all key sector planning.

“We have already seen the first stirrings of actions and initiatives for transformative change, such as innovative policies by many countries, local authorities and businesses, but especially by young people worldwide,” said Sir Robert Watson. “From the young global shapers behind the #VoiceforthePlanet movement, to school strikes for climate, there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future. The IPBES Global Assessment Report offers the best available expert evidence to help inform these decisions, policies and actions – and provides the scientific basis for the biodiversity framework and new decadal targets for biodiversity, to be decided in late 2020 in China, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.”

The full six-chapter Report (including all data) is expected exceed 1,500 pages and will be published later this year.

IPBES highlights the key Statistics and Facts from the Report


  • 75%: terrestrial environment “severely altered” to date by human actions (marine environments 66%)
  • 47%: reduction in global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition against their estimated natural baselines, with many continuing to decline by at least 4% per decade
  • 28%: global land area held and/or managed by Indigenous Peoples , including >40% of formally protected areas and 37% of all remaining terrestrial areas with very low human intervention
  • +/-60 billion: tons of renewable and non-renewable resources extracted globally each year, up nearly 100% since 1980
  • 15%: increase in global per capita consumption of materials since 1980
  • >85%: of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000 – loss of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss.

Species, Populations and Varieties of Plants and Animals

  • 8 million: total estimated number of animal and plant species on Earth (including 5.5 million insect species)
  • Tens to hundreds of times: the extent to which the current rate of global species extinction is higher compared to average over the last 10 million years, and the rate is accelerating
  • Up to 1 million: species threatened with extinction, many within decades
  • >500,000 (+/-9%): share of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species with insufficient habitat for long term survival without habitat restoration
  • >40%: amphibian species threatened with extinction
  • Almost 33%: reef forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and >33% marine mammals threatened with extinction
  • 25%: average proportion of species threatened with extinction across terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups that have been studied in sufficient detail
  • At least 680: vertebrate species driven to extinction by human actions since the 16th century
  • +/-10%: tentative estimate of proportion of insect species threatened with extinction
  • >20%: decline in average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes, mostly since 1900
    +/-560 (+/-10%): domesticated breeds of mammals were extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more threatened
  • 3.5%: domesticated breed of birds extinct by 2016
  • 70%: increase since 1970 in numbers of invasive alien species across 21 countries with detailed records
  • 30%: reduction in global terrestrial habitat integrity caused by habitat loss and deterioration
  • 47%: proportion of terrestrial flightless mammals and 23% of threatened birds whose distributions may have been negatively impacted by climate change already
  • >6: species of ungulate (hoofed mammals) would likely be extinct or surviving only in captivity today without conservation measures

Food and Agriculture

  • 300%: increase in food crop production since 1970
  • 23%: land areas that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation
  • >75%: global food crop types that rely on animal pollination
  • US$235 to US$577 billion: annual value of global crop output at risk due to pollinator loss
  • 5.6 gigatons: annual CO2 emissions sequestered in marine and terrestrial ecosystems – equivalent to 60% of global fossil fuel emission
  • +/-11%: world population that is undernourished
  • 100 million: hectares of agricultural expansion in the tropics from 1980 to 2000, mainly cattle ranching in Latin America (+/-42 million ha), and plantations in Southeast Asia (+/-7.5 million ha, of which 80% is oil palm), half of it at the expense of intact forests
  • 3%: increase in land transformation to agriculture between 1992 and 2015, mostly at the expense of forests
  • >33%: world’s land surface (and +/-75% of freshwater resources) devoted to crop or livestock production
  • 12%: world’s ice-free land used for crop production
  • 25%: world’s ice-free land used for grazing (+/-70% of drylands)
  • +/-25%: greenhouse gas emissions caused by land clearing, crop production and fertilization, with animal-based food contributing 75% to that figure
  • +/-30%: global crop production and global food supply provided by small land holdings (<2 ha), using +/-25% of agricultural land, usually maintaining rich agrobiodiversity
  • $100 billion: estimated level of financial support in OECD countries (2015) to agriculture that is potentially harmful to the environment

Oceans and Fishing

  • 33%: marine fish stocks in 2015 being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% are maximally sustainably fished; 7% are underfished
  • >55%: ocean area covered by industrial fishing
  • 3-10%: projected decrease in ocean net primary production due to climate change alone by the end of the century
  • 3-25%: projected decrease in fish biomass by the end of the century in low and high climate warming scenarios, respectively
  • >90%: proportion of the global commercial fishers accounted for by small scale fisheries (over 30 million people) – representing nearly 50% of global fish catch
  • Up to 33%: estimated share in 2011 of world’s reported fish catch that is illegal, unreported or unregulated
  • >10%: decrease per decade in the extent of seagrass meadows from 1970-2000
  • +/-50%: live coral cover of reefs lost since 1870s
  • 100-300 million: people in coastal areas at increased risk due to loss of coastal habitat protection
  • 400: low oxygen (hypoxic) coastal ecosystem ‘dead zones’ caused by fertilizers, affecting >245,000 km2
  • 29%: average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008; the extinction risk of birds, mammals and amphibians would have been at least 20% greater without conservation action in recent decade
  • >107: highly threatened birds, mammals and reptiles estimated to have benefitted from the eradication of invasive mammals on islands


  • 45%: increase in raw timber production since 1970 (4 billion cubic meters in 2017)
  • +/-13 million: forestry industry jobs
  • 50%: agricultural expansion that occurred at the expense of forests
  • 50%: decrease in net rate of forest loss since the 1990s (excluding those managed for timber or agricultural extraction)
  • 68%: global forest area today compared with the estimated pre-industrial level
  • 7%: reduction of intact forests (>500 sq. km with no human pressure) from 2000-2013 in developed and developing countries
  • 290 million ha (+/-6%): native forest cover lost from 1990-2015 due to clearing and wood harvesting
  • 110 million ha: rise in the area of planted forests from 1990-2015
  • 10-15%: global timber supplies provided by illegal forestry (up to 50% in some areas)
  • >2 billion: people who rely on wood fuel to meet their primary energy needs

Mining and Energy

  • <1%: total land used for mining, but the industry has significant negative impacts on biodiversity, emissions, water quality and human health
  • +/-17,000: large-scale mining sites (in 171 countries), mostly managed by 616 international corporations
  • +/-6,500: offshore oil and gas ocean mining installations ((in 53 countries)
  • US$345 billion: global subsidies for fossil fuels resulting in US$5 trillion in overall costs, including nature deterioration externalities; coal accounts for 52% of post-tax subsidies, petroleum for +/-33% and natural gas for +/-10%

Urbanization, Development and Socioeconomic Issues

  • >100%: growth of urban areas since 1992
  • 25 million km: length of new paved roads foreseen by 2050, with 90% of construction in least developed and developing countries
  • +/-50,000: number of large dams (>15m height) ; +/-17 million reservoirs (>0.01 ha)
  • 105%: increase in global human population (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion) since 1970 unevenly across countries and regions
  • 50 times higher: per capita GDP in developed vs. least developed countries
  • >2,500: conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food and land currently occurring worldwide
  • >1,000: environmental activists and journalists killed between 2002 and 2013


  • 70%: proportion of cancer drugs that are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature
  • +/-4 billion: people who rely primarily on natural medicines
  • 17%: infectious diseases spread by animal vectors, causing >700,000 annual deaths
  • +/-821 million: people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa
  • 40%: of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water
  • >80%: global wastewater discharged untreated into the environment
  • 300-400 million tons: heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities dumped annually into the world’s waters
  • 10 times: increase in plastic pollution since 1980

Climate Change

  • 1 degree Celsius: average global temperature difference in 2017 compared to pre-industrial levels, rising +/-0.2 (+/-0.1) degrees Celsius per decade
  • >3 mm: annual average global sea level rise over the past two decades
  • 16-21 cm: rise in global average sea level since 1900
  • 100% increase since 1980 in greenhouse gas emissions, raising average global temperature by at least 0.7 degree
  • 40%: rise in carbon footprint of tourism (to 4.5Gt of carbon dioxide) from 2009 to 2013
  • 8%: of total greenhouse gas emissions are from transport and food consumption related to tourism
  • 5%: estimated fraction of species at risk of extinction from 2°C warming  alone, rising to 16% at 4.3°C warming
  • Even for global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees, the majority of terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly.

Global Goals

  • Most: Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 likely to be missed
  • 22 of 44: assessed targets under the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, ocean and land are being undermined by substantial negative trends in nature and its contributions to people
  • 72%: of local indicators in nature developed and used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities that show negative trends
  • 4: number of Aichi Targets where good progress has been made on certain components, with moderate progress on some components of another 7 targets, poor progress on all components of 6 targets, and insufficient information to assess progress on some or all components of the remaining 3 targets   

“This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity. Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently. UNESCO is committed to promoting respect of the living and of its diversity, ecological solidarity with other living species, and to establish new, equitable and global links of partnership and intragenerational solidarity, for the perpetuation of humankind.” – Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO

PPBES Media Release

Image copyright unsplash-logo
Ben White

Translate »