Up to a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, warns major UN study

  • Video report by ITV Science Editor Tom Clarke

Up to a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, a greater number than ever before in human history.

That’s according to a major new UN study, which warns wildlife and habitats are declining at an “unprecedented” rate worldwide that directly threatens human beings.

Hundreds of scientists warn the natural world is deteriorating faster than ever as a direct result of human activity, eroding “the very foundations” of economies, livelihoods, food, health and quality of life worldwide.

A huge transformation is needed across the economy and society to protect and restore nature.

Without such “transformational change”, the damage will continue or worsen up to 2050 and beyond, posing a direct threat to human well-being around the world, the study said.

It will also undermine existing global efforts to tackle poverty and hunger, improve health and curb climate change.

What are the key points from the report?

Three quarters of the world's land has been 'significantly altered'. Credit: PA
  • Habitats, wild animals and plants and even domesticated breeds are in decline or vanishing as a direct result of human activity, and the rate at which species are becoming extinct is accelerating.

  • The biggest cause of wildlife losses is change to the way land or marine environments are used, followed by direct exploitation of animals and plants, climate change, pollution and invasive species.

  • Three quarters of the world’s land has been “significantly altered” by human activity, with forests cut down and grassland ploughed up for crops or livestock and the spread of cities, industry and infrastructure such as roads.

  • Rising global temperatures are already having an impact on nature and the effects would increase in the coming decades.

  • Plastic pollution has increased 10-fold in the seas since 1980, harming turtles, seabirds and mammals.

  • Fertiliser run-off has caused “dead zones” in the oceans, land is becoming less productive, and the loss of pollinators puts crops at risk.

The species threatened with extinction. Credit: PA Graphics

Leading British scientist and chairman of the IntergovernmentalScience-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Sir Robert Watson, said: “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.”

What needs to be done?

Habitats are being destroyed by human activity. Credit: Emily Beament/PA

The assessment outlines a series of scenarios for the future, and found that major changes are needed to protect nature and benefit people.

These include a shift away from concentrating on economic growth, bringing in wildlife-friendly farming, restoring habitats such as native forests, cutting food waste, creating marine protected areas and effective quotas for fishing, reducing pollution and creating more green space in cities.

It is hoped the evidence in the report will help form policies and action and provide the basis for new global targets to protect nature that will be negotiated at a UN meeting in China in 2020.

Responding to the report, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, John Sauven, outlined changes the world needs to make.

He called for the UK Government to restore peatlands, plant millions of trees, provide ocean sanctuaries around the coasts and support a shift from meat and dairy to “healthy, plant-based meals”.

He also urged an end to cutting down forests for palm oil and soy production a swell as the exploitation of oceans.

What are protesters demanding?

There were mass protests in London over climate change and environmental damage. Credit: PA

The global assessment comes in the wake of widespread protests on the streets of London and other UK cities over the twin crises of environmental damage and climate change.

Lorna Greenwood, spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion which led the protests, said: “The natural world is collapsing because of how we live and we will go with it unless we act now.

“Not only are we destroying nature but we’re worsening our own health and making it harder for us to feed ourselves.

“It’s time to rethink how we grow food, travel and look after the countryside.

“It may mean hard choices but the rewards are enormous. Within our lifetime we could see nature restored and our children’s future secured.”

She said protesters had no choice “but to rebel until our world is healed”, but said the shift in public attitudes in the last fortnight meant it was becoming politically realistic to rethink how to produce food and look after nature.

The Woodland Trust has called for more native trees. Credit: PA

Abi Bunker, director of conservation at the Woodland Trust, said it was essential to address the climate and natural environment crises together.

She said natural systems on which people depended in the UK were under pressure from habitat and wildlife loss, use of pesticides, pollution, overgrazing, invasive species and pests and diseases, and climate change.

More native trees and expanded woodland cover were a “huge part of the solution” to tackle damage to the natural environment, absorb carbon emissions and help cope with the impacts of climate change, such as flooding.

“To make an impact, new woodland creation, using natural regeneration wherever possible, will need to happen on a faster and far greater scale than ever before and be sustained over several decades,” she urged.