Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winning physicist
Recently WWF published its famous ‘Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era‘ showing an alarming reality of the state of the planet and what the future holds if concrete actions are not implemented NOW.
Hear it from Marco Lambertini – Director General WWF International
The Living Planet Index (LPI) showed that from 1970 to 2012 (little over 40 years!) vertebrate population abundance has declined in average 58% (more than half!). The Terrestrial, Freshwater, and Marine LPI showed that populations have declined by 38%, 81% and 36% respectively, between the same period of time.
For any person these numbers surely pose an alarming reality of the pressures humans have put on the planet. Are we seeing on this report the crude impacts of the so called ‘Anthropocene’?
As the report shows the main threats for these declines have been:
- Habitat loss and degradation – due to unsustainable agriculture, logging, transportation, residential/commercial development, energy production and mining.
- Species overexploitation – due to unsustainable hunting or poaching, harvesting (for subsistence or trade) and accidental kills (e.g bycatch in fisheries)
- Pollution – due to directly affecting the species’ environment (e.g oil spills) or indirectly by affecting food availability or reproductive performance, which affects population number overtime
- Invasive species and disease – by competing with natives species for space, food and other resources, and spreading diseases (humans are responsible for this too!)
- Climate Change – with temperature changes, species can be confounded triggering events to happen at the wrong time (i.e misaligning reproduction, or the period of greater food availability in a specific habitat).
If these threats continue how they have been evolving for the past years – which predict a 2% decline of vertebrate populations in average per year, then what we would be seeing is that by 2020 vertebrate populations could have declined by 67% since 1970. Portraying a very possible sixth mass extinction!
As an example – African elephants (Loxodonta africana) have been threatened by overexploitation, habitat loss and fragmentation. However, poaching for ivory seems to be the primary cause of the decline in elephants. Specially in Tanzania where 2/3 of the population declined between 2009 – 2014, due to illegal kills.
This ‘picture’ we are seeing is showing the very ugly impacts the Anthropocene is having on wildlife. But this ‘picture’ goes beyond that. The impacts are also affecting us – humans.
The pressures we are putting on the planet are also affecting ecosystems and their correct functioning, thus altering the services we receive from them. Healthy ecosystems are vital for our survival, well-being and prosperity. They provide to us essential ‘ecosystem services’ – such as regulation and purification of water and air, adequate climatic conditions, pollination, seed dispersal, among others.
- Forest cover – for the correct functioning of the Earth: On a gross basis a total of 239 million hectares of natural forest were lost since 1990
- Soil quality – for water supply: About 30% of global land area has experienced significant degradation due to land-use change and poor agricultural management practices.
- Water availability – reliable access for domestic life, agriculture and industry: Nearly 50 countries experienced water stress or scarcity in 2014
- Fish stocks – major protein source: Over 30% of fish stocks are overfished.
Our Ecological footprint shows that we are needing 1.6 planets to supply our demand. What this means is that the pressures that we are putting to the planet are diminishing its natural capital at a faster rate that it can be replenished. These impacts show the bad side of the Anthropocene, the pressures on the planet are starting to ‘backfire’ and eventually if things don’t improve, competition for the few available resources could turn into a harsh fight between humans.
Although the ‘picture’ ahead is more grey and dark than bright, all is not lost, there is a good side. In order to change the course of this tragedy, we need to take action NOW. Starting by using our natural resources in a sustainable way, changing our mindsets about economic success and the way we perceive well-being and prosperity. Moreover, it is necessary to tackle these issues from the legal and policy framework side, to get the corporate sector to think about the long-term risks of the environmental degradation since they are the major actors of change at this point. Likewise, our energy sources have to shift from fossil to renewable energies (e.g solar, wind, among others), and our consumption choices and lifestyle have to change to influence agricultural production into a more sustainable and responsible one.
We have to become more resilient to future changes and mitigate the effects of Climate Change. By protecting our planet’s species we guarantee the resilience of our ecosystems, ensuring future stability on the ecosystem services we rely on.
How do we do this? Where to we start? As challenging as this sounds. It is possible, as examples we can see that large carnivores have ‘returned’ to Europe as the result of good international and national legislation, or that the Giant Panda is no longer endangered thanks to the decrease in poaching and the expansion of its protected habitat.
Also, to add up to the good side, actions to shift this dreadful future have already started to take place. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement 2015 prepare the ground for what needs to be done, but we must go above and beyond these to change our course and transition from the ugly and bad, of the Anthropocene impacts into more of the good, but this needs to be happening fast and also needs to be happening now. Even if as Bohr said that prediction about the future is difficult, I would answer to him in this particular case: that we better act on the predictions we have, because is better to be safe than sorry.