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The United Nations released a Global Assessment Report in Paris in May—a health check of our planet, if you will, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.
The message was stark: one million out of the estimated eight million of our planet’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, thanks to human activities. Many will be gone within decades unless action is taken.
Two in five amphibian species are in danger of extinction, as is one-third of reef-forming corals, and almost one-third of other marine species. One in ten insects are threatened with extinction.
Our Human Footprint
The report highlights how our human footprint is so large, it leaves little space for anything else.
Seventy-five percent of all land is being used for agriculture, covered by concrete, swallowed by dam reservoirs, or otherwise significantly altered. Eighty-five percent of the world’s wetlands have vanished since the 18th century. Two-thirds of the marine environment have been changed by aquaculture, shipping routes, and subsea mines. Seventy-five percent of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation.
As a result, more than 500,000 species do not have sufficient habitats for their survival. Many will disappear within decades.
Agriculture and fishing are the primary causes. Food production has increased since the 1970s, which has helped feed a burgeoning global population, generating jobs and economic growth. But this has come at a price: Grazing areas for cattle account for about 25 percent of the world’s ice-free land and more than 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, crop production uses 12 percent of land and creates less than 7 percent of emissions.
In Indonesia, cutting down rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations has destroyed the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In Mozambique, ivory poachers helped kill nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone.
Also, our waste is overwhelming the Earth’s capacity to absorb them. More than 80 percent of waste water is pumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans without treatment. Plastic waste has risen 10 times since 1980, affecting 86 percent of marine turtles, 44 percent of seabirds, and 43 percent of marine mammals.
At the same time, a new threat has emerged: global warming. Approximately five percent of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the report says.
The world has already warmed by one degree. When populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, and landscapes are becoming fragmented, and when plants and animals can’t move to find more suitable habitats, we have a problem.
It is not just about the animals and the trees. This change in biodiversity will affect us all. Today, we are relying on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals for food. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have become extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. What this means is that the food system is becoming less resilient against diseases and pests. And it may become harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with global warming.
A radical rethink is necessary, according to the report’s authors. Piecemeal efforts to protect individual species are no longer be sufficient. “Transformative changes” are needed to curb wasteful consumption, reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, crack down on poachers and illegal logging, and reduce the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.
What Can We Do?
>> Read up so you can keep yourself informed on the latest developments with regard to biodiversity and global warming. Friends who are environmental activists recommended the following two books: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells, just published this year, and Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken and published in 2017.
>> Start at home. Reduce food waste. A 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the total global carbon footprint of food waste was equivalent to 3.6 billion tons of carbon.
>> Vote for responsible politicians who are addressing the issue of climate change. We need to exert pressure on our respective local governments to make recycling and collection points more accessible; reduce carbon emissions; ensure that legislation is enforced, including going after poachers; and adopt eco-friendly solutions where feasible.
Each year, the United States throws away nearly 40 percent of its food. Seventy percent of water and 50 percent of land in the United States is devoted to agriculture. So when we are chucking out food, it’s a tremendous waste of resources. About 33 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gases are produced to grow food that never gets eaten. According to the US Department of Agriculture, that adds up to more than $160 billion wasted per year.
How Can We Reduce Food Waste?
- Check the fridge first before going food shopping. You can throw leftovers together to make a stir-fry, fried rice, smoothies, soups, and/or casseroles.
- If you do need to go to the store, bring a shopping list and stick to it.
- Learn the difference between sell by, use by, best by, and expiration dates. Don’t be afraid to buy less attractive but still fresh produce.
- At restaurants, order only what you can eat. Take home the leftovers to eat another day.
- At buffets, put on your plate only what you can eat.
- Do a “food audit” for two weeks, noting what kinds of food get thrown out.
Let’s all do our part to prevent the extinction of our planet’s species.
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