The latest Living Planet Report 2016 should give us all pause for thought…
Every two years, WWF works with key partners in the non-profit world to produce a report on the health of the natural world we live in. It incorporates the latest information on species populations and threats to ecosystems and tells us how we are doing in caring for our wonderful natural support system.
So how are we doing?
The Living Planet Index (LPI), using underlying data collected on 3,706 species, shows that wildlife populations fell by 58% between 1970 and 2012. (The last report in 2014 showed a loss in species of 52%).
The Global Living Planet Index shows a decline of 58%, between 1970 and 2012. (WWF Living Planet Report, 2016)
In addition, if current trends continue the decline is expected to be 67% by 2020. In simple terms, the report predicts that two-thirds of wildlife populations will have been wiped out between 1970 and 2020 as a result of global human activity over that fifty-year period. This should give us all pause for thought. This rate of change is unprecedented and unsustainable. The report points out that annual resource use across the world in 2012 required an equivalent of 1.6 Earths to be sustainable over the long term: In other words we are using more resources each year than can be renewed by the natural world.
Freshwater systems in decline
It is worth taking a closer look at the data underlying this index to understand where the greatest changes are taking place. The ecosystems under greatest threat are freshwater systems. The Freshwater LPI has declined by an extraordinary 81% since 1970. This index includes fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal and bird species that live in and around our rivers and wetlands. The report highlights the primary causes of this steep decline as habitat loss or degradation, over-exploitation, the impact of invasive species, pollution and climate change.
Freshwater systems are all about connectivity and flow, where seasonal differences in rainfall and temperature produce stunning contrasts in conditions for wildlife throughout the year. Even in the United Kingdom we can see the difference for wildlife as water meadows flood, or rivers run in full spate, yet the scale of these changes is tiny compared to the extent of seasonal flooding of rivers such as the Niger or the Mekong, whose flood plains produce abundant seasonal fisheries that feed both wildlife and people.
What is causing such an extent of habitat loss in freshwater systems? We know that some great lakes have been diminished by over extraction of water, such as the Aral Sea in Russia, and this sort of habitat loss can easily be compared to deforestation. The impact of deforestation is clear to see, however much of the habitat loss in freshwater systems remains relatively unseen. It has come about through the engineering of freshwater systems, where the connectivity and flows of rivers are fundamentally changed. A river may not disappear, but conditions are so changed that the habitat that species have evolved to live in is effectively lost.
Global distribution of future hydropower dams, either planned or under construction. (WWF Living Planet Report, 2016)
Almost half of global river volume is already altered by some form of flow regulation or fragmentation, such as damming. The report tells us that if all dams currently under construction or in the planning stages are completed, natural hydrological flows would be lost for 93% of all river volume. We will have lost almost all our natural river systems.
There is some good news, however. Populations of migratory fish species in Europe have increased since 2006 with improvements to water quality and the introduction of fish passes to allow migration along rivers and the removal of some dams.
Our outsized ecological footprint
The report looks at each ecosystem and gives an overview of trends and specific threats and then goes on to look at how our ecological footprint has grown over the past 50 years. One example is the impact of soya production, much of it to feed livestock for meat consumption, on the Brazilian Cerrado. Wildlife populations have fallen and soil quality has degraded as large areas of land have come under large scale soya production. This production feeds much of Europe’s livestock, demonstrating how our supply chains extend across the world, so that each of us is unable to understand the true impact of the food we eat and the products we buy.
Global ecological footprint by component vs Earth’s biocapacity, 1961 – 2012. (WWF Living Planet R