Two sobering reports last month underlined the extent to which the natural world is simultaneously suffering from humanity’s relentless urge for expansion and its crippling inability to act.
The reports respectively chart how wildlife populations are declining across the world and how biodiversity and creatures in the UK that ought to have been protected have instead been left to fend for themselves – to catastrophic effect.
Over the past 50 years, as human consumption, trade, travel and urbanisation have exploded, the number of mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians have been bottoming out. According to the Living Planet Report 2020, produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), monitored populations dropped by an average of 68 per cent between 1970 and 2016. In South America and the Caribbean, the drop is an astonishing 94 per cent, on average.
“As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations,” said Carter Roberts, the president and chief executive of WWF-US. “But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. We cannot shield humanity from the impacts of environmental destruction. It’s time to restore our broken relationship with nature for the benefit of species and people alike.”
Changes in the way we use land is one of the major factors contributing to this catastrophic loss of biodiversity, in particular, the report says, the destruction of pristine native habitats to make way for farmland. In the Amazon, for example, cattle ranching and soy farming to feed the global meat industry has contributed to vast swathes of rainforest being hacked down and turned into pastures and fields.
Importantly, though, it isn’t too late. The WWF report says that with urgent and drastic action – including changing the way we eat and farm, so that plant-based food becomes our main dietary staple – the decline in the natural world can be slowed, stopped and reversed.
The RSPB agrees that farming habits must change in its report – A Lost Decade – which hammers the UK not only for failing to meet international targets for protecting biodiversity, but attempting to give a “rose-tinted interpretation” of its efforts. While the UK government claims to have met a third of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – eight out of 20 – agreed 10 years ago at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Japan, the bird conservation charity says it has failed to meet 17 of the goals – and indeed has gone into reverse on six.
Not that Britain is alone: last month a UN report revealed that globally not one of the 20 targets agreed to by 196 countries had been met, and set out eight urgent “transitions” that must take place to protect the natural world – including eating less meat.
The RSPB report says funding to protect UK wildlife and the environment has dropped by £250 million since 2010, to the detriment of creating and properly protecting wildlife habitats. In fact, just 5 per cent of the UK is being effectively looked after for nature. It has now launched its Revive Our World campaign, calling for legally binding targets to protect biodiversity in the UK and reverse the damage done to the natural world.
Kate Jennings, the RSPB’s head of site conservation policy and the author of the report, said: “It could not be more clear that what we’re seeing is overall decline [in UK species]. We’re fundamentally dependent on nature, so God help the lot of us if we don’t make serious headway in the next decade. Past performance doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Read WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020
Read the RSPB’s A Lost Decade