UN Report Spells Out World's Best Chance for Averting Eco-Disaster by 2050

"It is not too late," IPBES chair said.

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The global ecosystem is currently experiencing a dangerous and unprecedented decline in biodiversity, a United Nations report warned Monday, and it could get far worse unless society undergoes “transformative change” by 2050.

One million species face now extinction, the largest figure ever recorded in human history, according to the new report, conducted by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a body hosted on the United Nation’s Bonn campus in Germany. Sir Robert Watson, chair of the organization, said in a statement that “it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.”

“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals,” Watson said. “By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”

The report’s findings paint a bleak picture of the state of planet, despite efforts to shift to renewable energy and a more sustainable way of living. The International Renewable Energy Agency last month released a roadmap to achieve near-complete sustainable energy by 2050, amid a shift in the markets that makes renewables cheaper than coal in some cases. These moves are vital to ensuring average temperatures don’t move more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Monday’s report shows, however, that large-scale shifts to protect the environment beyond just carbon emissions are also needed.

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development released in 2015 called for action on 17 goals including clean energy, technological innovation and climate action. Monday’s report states that the current negative trends in biodiversity will undermine progress toward 80 percent of assessment targets. In other words, previous assessments didn’t necessarily account for biodiversity’s impact on other areas like economics and security.

The body declared that, if these “transformative changes” don’t arrive before 2050, the negative trends witnessed in the natural world will continue based on assessment of all other scenarios. That’s because climate change, organism exploitation and land-use changes will all continue to impact the wider ecosystem.

A summary for policymakers explains how these changes will cover a broad range of areas:

Scenarios and pathways that explore the effects of a low-to-moderate population growth, and transformative changes in production and consumption of energy, food, feed, fibre and water, sustainable use, equitable sharing of the benefits arising from use and nature-friendly climate adaptation and mitigation, will better support the achievement of future societal and environmental objectives.

A change in food production could help power this radical change.
A change in food production could help power this radical change.

“The member states of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” Watson said.

Beyond emissions into the atmosphere, the report highlights the numerous detrimental effects of humanity’s current trajectory. This includes over 2,500 conflicts centered on fossil fuels and other resources, 33 percent of marine fish stocks harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015, and a 300 percent increase in food crop production since 1970. Some of these areas will require innovative solutions, like a deeper integration of the agricultural supply chain to reduce food waste.

Watson also praised action from school strikers and the “VoiceForThePlanet” movement, suggesting that these show the first stirrings that “there is a groundswell of understanding that urgent action is needed if we are to secure anything approaching a sustainable future.”

The launch of the report on Monday precedes its full publication later this year, where it’s expected to run to over 1,500 pages. Its publication could help move those calling for action to focus on the report’s specific recommendations and help enact this transformative change.