Global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century due in large part to the very same environmental destruction which is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, according to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020.
Dr Sarah Whitmee and Thomas Pienkowski of The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, based at the Oxford Martin School, contributed to the report, which calls for an end to the destruction of natural habitats and reforms to the global food system.
“The Living Planet Report 2020 underlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International. “We can’t ignore the evidence – these serious declines in wildlife species populations are an indicator that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs of systems failure. From the fish in our oceans and rivers to bees which play a crucial role in our agricultural production, the decline of wildlife affects directly nutrition, food security and the livelihoods of billions of people.”
The scale of this change is outlined in the Living Planet Report 2020. This report presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world through the Living Planet Index (LPI), provided by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which tracks trends in global wildlife abundance, and contributions from more than 125 experts from around the world. It shows that the main cause of the dramatic decline in species populations on land observed in the LPI is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation, driven by how we as humanity produce food.
The LPI shows that factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics - including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife - were also some of the drivers behind the 68 per cent average decline in global vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016.
“We’ve seen impressive gains in human health over the past 50 years, but global ecological loss threatens to reverse these gains,” said Dr Whitmee, Executive Secretary to The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health.
“Human health is connected to natural systems in many ways, from wetlands supporting recreation and mental well-being to wild capture fisheries contributing to the diets of millions globally,” says Thomas Pienkowski, DPhil Researcher, Oxford University. “Although we still do not know why COVID-19 emerged, the number of serious infectious diseases has dramatically increased over the last 80 years, partly driven by human expansion into natural areas. Infectious diseases are just one of the many threats to human health posed by global ecological change.”
The LPI, which tracked almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016, also shows that wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84 per cent - the starkest average population decline in any biome, equivalent to 4 per cent per year since 1970. One example is the spawning population of the Chinese sturgeon in China’s Yangtze river, which declined by 97 per cent between 1982 and 2015 due to the damming of the waterway.
“The Living Planet Index is one of the most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity,” said Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s Director of Conservation. “An average decline of 68% in the past 50 years is catastrophic, and clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world. If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we all depend. But we also know that conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed.”
The LPR 2020 also includes pioneering modelling which shows that without further efforts to counteract habitat loss and degradation, global biodiversity will continue to decline. Based on a paper, ‘Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy,’ co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions and published today in Nature, the modelling makes clear that stabilizing and reversing the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favoring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.
The research shows that implementing these measures together rather than in isolation will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats, thereby reversing biodiversity trends from habitat loss decades earlier than strategies that allow habitat losses and then attempt to reverse them later on. The modelling also indicates that if the world carries on with “business as usual”, rates of biodiversity loss seen since 1970 will continue over the coming years.
“These losses would at best take decades to reverse, and further irreversible biodiversity losses are likely, putting at risk the myriad ecosystem services that people depend on,” said David Leclère, lead author of the paper and Research Scholar at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis. “The permanent loss of biodiversity also means lost opportunities to improve human health, such as from pharmaceuticals derived from plants, fungi, and other organisms,” added Whitmee.
The Living Planet Report 2020 launches less than a week before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when leaders are expected to review the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNGA 2020 will bring together world leaders, businesses and civil society to develop the post-2020 framework for action for global biodiversity and thus marks a milestone moment to set the groundwork for an urgently needed New Deal for Nature and People.
Lambertini said: “The Bending the Curve modelling provides invaluable evidence that if we are to have any hope of restoring nature to provide current and future generations of people with what they need, then world leaders must - in addition to conservation efforts - make our food system more sustainable and take deforestation - one of the main causes of wildlife population decline - out of supply chains.
“With leaders gathering virtually for the UN General Assembly in a few days’ time, this research can help us secure a New Deal for Nature and People which will be key to the long-term survival of wildlife, plant and insect populations and the whole of nature, including humankind. A New Deal has never been needed more.”
Supporters are invited to add their names to WWF’s petition which can be found at: panda.org/pandemics and help call on world leaders to implement policy frameworks and action plans that implement a ‘One Health’ approach which ensures they are doing all they can to protect us from future pandemics.