‘Eroding foundations’: One million species threatened with extinction

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – with one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction, according to a new report.

The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, the publication, released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), has warned.

The ‘IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ is described as “the most comprehensive ever completed” and the first intergovernmental report of its kind.

Compiled by 145 authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature.

It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades, based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, as well as indigenous and local knowledge.


The report finds that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades – more than ever before in human history.

The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.

At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of re-efforming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened.

To increase the policy-relevance of the report, the assessment’s authors have ranked the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far.

These drivers, in descending order, are:
  1. Changes in land and sea use;
  2. Direct exploitation of organisms;
  3. Climate change;
  4. Pollution; and
  5. Invasive alien species.

The report notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7° – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics – with impacts expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.

Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through “transformative changes” across economic, social, political and technological factors.

‘Transformative change’

IPBES chair, Sir Robert Watson, commented on the report, following the seventh plenary session of the group last week:

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.

“The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said.

“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.

By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.

“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.