Our Burning Planet


It’s Code Red for the survival of all wild creatures — and ultimately humanity

It’s Code Red for the survival of all wild creatures — and ultimately humanity
An aerial view of a harvested corn field and forest in Brazil. (Photo: Supplied)

The pressure we are placing on the natural world is driving an escalating crisis in nature. We can turn back from biodiversity meltdown, but time is running out.

Earth’s wildlife populations are in freefall. A report by 89 global scientists has found that between 1970 and 2018, the abundance of non-domestic mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 69%.

During that time, humans continued to chop down forests, consume beyond the planet’s limits and pollute on a massive scale. The scientists identified seven key threats to wildlife: agriculture, hunting, fishing, logging, pollution, invasive species and climate change.

The Living Planet Report, produced by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London, analyses 32,000 species populations to measure the abundance of wildlife across all continents. Providing a snapshot of the health of our natural world, it notes that there is cause for dismay and that time is running out to turn back from biodiversity meltdown.

“Humanity,” says the report, “is overusing our planet by at least 75%, the equivalent to living off 1.75 Earths. This overshoot erodes the planet’s health and, with it, humanity’s prospects.”

code red planet

Humanity’s ecological footprint by land use. (Graph: Supplied)

Latin America, which includes the Amazon, had the steepest decline in wildlife abundance — a 94% drop in 40 years. Africa had the second-largest fall at 66%, followed by Asia and the Pacific.

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Deforestation of the Amazon is accelerating under a Brazilian government that encourages it, stripping the ecosystem of trees and the wildlife and indigenous people that depend on them. Every year the planet loses roughly 10 million hectares of forests — an area about the size of Portugal.

The report notes that land depletion is the greatest cause of the decline and is linked to human use and human-induced climate change. The areas with the highest probabilities for climate-linked effects, says the report, are the polar regions, the east coast of Australia and South Africa.

code red planet

Global Living Planet Index. (Graphic: Supplied)

The total wildlife decline is akin to the disappearance of the human population of China, the Americas, Europe, Africa and Oceania in the space of 50 years. One million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, says the report, and 1%-2.5% of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish have already become extinct. Population abundances and genetic diversity have decreased and species are losing their climatically determined habitats.

Freshwater populations have been hardest hit, declining by an average of 83%. The report notes that only 37% of rivers longer than 1,000km remain free-flowing over their entire length. “When some fish species migrate large distances along these ‘swimways’ the presence of dams and reservoirs poses a major threat to their survival.”

In the oceans, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays declined by 71% over the past 50 years, due mainly to an 18-fold increase in fishing pressure since 1970.

code red hotspots

Global hotspots of risk. (Graphic: Supplied)

‘Terrifying figures’

“The message is clear and the lights are flashing red,” says Marco Lambertini, the director-general of WWF International. “Our most comprehensive report ever on the state of global vertebrate wildlife populations presents terrifying figures: a shocking two-thirds decline in the global Living Planet Index in less than 50 years.”

We know that the health of our planet is declining, says the report, and we know why. We also know that we have the knowledge and means to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

An important factor in species and habitat, says the report, is indigenous communities.

“Leaders in dominant societies have failed to control the human activities driving climate change and habitat loss, while indigenous lands and waters have been successfully taken care of over millennia.

“Far from the colonial idea of separating people from nature in order to preserve it, indigenous approaches to conservation regularly place reciprocal people-place relationships at the centre of cultural and care practice. In Canada, Brazil and Australia, for instance, vertebrate biodiversity in indigenous territories equals or surpasses that found within formally protected areas.”

To save nature, the report says, it will be necessary to:

  • Enforce restrictions on fossil fuels;
  • Make laws to protect endangered species and spaces;
  • Fund ecological restoration;
  • Phase out and better regulate extractive industries;
  • Require businesses to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence across their supply chains;
  • End subsidies that encourage activities that degrade ecosystems; and
  • Shift to sustainable production and consumption and a transition to a circular economy.

Primary culprits not named

The report sounds a necessary warning, but fails to name the primary culprits that have fuelled the collapse of biodiversity. There are reasons…

The WWF has been in existence for 60 years. It is the world’s largest environmental NGO, with assets reportedly of nearly $1-billion raised from foundations, public donations, governments and corporations. It has more than five million supporters in 100 countries. Its primary stated goal is the protection of biological diversity and natural resources.

The report is therefore something of an indictment of itself, after spending 60 years seemingly failing to stem biodiversity meltdown despite large funding and many programmes. Its latest report, while valid and vital in its findings, is of course also a fundraising document.

There are notable silences. In the latest report, there is only a passing mention of oil, coal or agribusiness, the world’s greatest cause of climate change and biodiversity collapse. There have been ongoing controversies about the source of WWF funds, and claims of support for corporate “greenwashing” in exchange for financial support.

Allegations in a book by German journalist Wilfried Huismann, PandaLeaks,  criticises the WWF for its involvement with corporations that are responsible for large-scale destruction of the environment, such as Coca-Cola.

Investigative journalism by NBC, and later Naomi Klein, found the WWF had profited from multimillion-dollar investment contracts it put into oil, gas, coal and tar sands developments. When confronted, it did not pull out of these, saying instead it would downscale. The WWF does not oppose fossil fuels, but engages in what it internally terms “responsible development” of fossil fuels. This does not diminish the warnings the report contains, however, only its solutions.

The United Nations will meet in Montreal in December to agree on a new Global Framework for Biodiversity. This may be the last chance we get to save the bulk of the planet’s wild creatures.

“By the end of this decade,” the report says, “we will know whether this plan was enough or not. The fight for people and nature will have been won or lost. The signs are not good. Discussions so far are locked in old-world thinking and entrenched positions, with no sign of the bold action needed to achieve a nature-positive future.”

It is hoped that the WWF will rethink its entrenched position and undertake bolder actions to achieve that future. It has the global clout, but does it have the political will? DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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