A Biodiversity Report Card

The global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

Around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. That’s the striking statistic that made headlines around the world when a UN advisory body previewed its first global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services in May 2019. To understand the implications behind the assessment and what we can do about it, we take a closer look at the report behind the headlines.

Who wrote the assessment?

IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body established by UN member States in 2012. It provides policy makers with authoritative assessments of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services and is sometimes described as the “IPCC for biodiversity.”

The IPBES Global Assessment was compiled by a multidisciplinary team of hundreds of experts from around the world. Along with the full 1,500-page assessment (which will be published later in the year), the authors prepared a 39-page summary for policymakers that has now been negotiated and approved—line by line—by representatives from each of the more than 130 IPBES member nations.

Read the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Global Assessment report here: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

Why is the assessment important?

The report is important because it serves as an official base of evidence for policy makers. It is the first Global Assessment produced by IPBES, and it is the most comprehensive report of its kind. To reach their findings, the authors reviewed around 15,000 scientific and government sources, alongside indigenous and local knowledge sources from around the world. In addition, the report stresses the links between biodiversity loss and impacts to human societies in various areas critical for human survival.

What are biodiversity and ecosystem services? 

Biodiversity refers to diversity within species, between species, and within ecosystems. For example, an area of high biodiversity might have more species and more types of species than an area of low biodiversity.

Ecosystem services can be thought of as “nature’s contributions to people.” These contributions include direct products like food, energy, construction materials, and medicines. They also include the complex systems that sustain the quality of air, water, and soils, assist agriculture, stabilize the climate, and serve as buffer against the effects of natural disasters. The natural environment also helps people in ways that are more difficult to quantify, providing psychological and cultural benefits, for example.

What does the assessment conclude? 

The summary for policymakers presents four overarching messages:

Biodiversity and ecosystem services are deteriorating worldwide.

The drivers of change have accelerated during the past 50 years.

We are not on track to meet global sustainability goals without transformative change across economic, social, political, and technological factors.

We can reach our sustainability goals and other societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts to foster transformative change.

How much have biodiversity and 

ecosystem services deteriorated? 

We harvest more from the earth than ever before: yields of food, energy, and materials have increased in the last 50 years. Yet these rates are likely not sustainable. Over the same period, most indicators of biodiversity and ecosystems have declined. Here is a sampling of statistics included in the report summary:

25% of plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. 

10% of domestic mammal breeds used for food and agriculture are now extinct.

23% of the world’s land area suffers reduced productivity from land degradation. 

At least US$235 billion in annual crop value is threatened by pollinator loss.

Declines in biodiversity and ecosystems have generally been less severe on land managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, though the trend was still negative. For example, 72% of indicators of nature managed by indigenous and local communities indicate ongoing deterioration.

What are the underlying drivers of these declines?

IPBES ranked the biggest drivers of change in nature during the past 50 years. Land and freshwater ecosystems have been most impacted by land-use change (primarily agriculture, forestry, and urbanization). For the ocean, the major driver of ecosystem change was fishing.

What does all this mean for people?

Undermining the health of nature can undermine our own quality of life in a wide variety of ways, for example by:
Exacerbating the spread of emerging infectious diseases of people, crops, farm animals, and wildlife.

Reducing agricultural productivity through land degradation and pollinator loss.

Increasing flood and hurricane damage to human life and property through loss of coastal habitats and coral reefs.

Reducing the resilience of agro-ecosystems to the changing climate, pests, and pathogens.

Increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events through climate change.

The impacts will not be evenly felt across the world, however. Many Indigenous Peoples and the world’s poorest communities live in areas of the world that will experience significant negative effects of the declines in nature.