Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, says biodiversity report

  • Nature is declining and species are going extinct globally at rates unprecedented in human history, said a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
  • There is increasing pressure on land and marine resources and that land resources are better managed by indigenous people, said the report.
  • Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 and that over 80 percent of the global wastewater is being discharged back into the environment without treatment, the report highlighted.

Around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades and more than ever before in human history, according to a recent report. The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources by humans is impacting nature and with “grave impacts” on people across the world, it said.

Additionally, the world’s waters and the wildlife they hold are under stress from human activities indicates the report, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It revealed that marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 affecting at least 267 species, including 86 percent of marine turtles, 44 percent of seabirds and 43 percent of marine mammals and this can affect humans through food chains.

Over 80 percent of the global wastewater is being discharged back into the environment without treatment, while 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped into the world’s waters every year, said the report.

Moreover, excessive fertilisers from agricultural fields that find their way into the coastal ecosystems are creating “dead zones” or hypoxic areas in the oceans which impact the survival of marine life.  

More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened with extinction, said the report.

The revelations were made in the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services released by the IPBES, a first of its kind report, on May 6. IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body, established in 2012 to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The report was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries including India over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. It looked at how economic development and its impact on nature has developed and changed over the past five decades.

Marine plastic pollution is impacting species like turtles and can impact humans through the food chain. Photo by António D. Abreu/Wikimedia Commons.

IPBES Chair Robert Watson, in a media statement, emphasised that the health of ecosystems, which all species depend on, 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. Through transformative change nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably,” he said, in the statement.

Suneetha Subramanian, who is one of the authors of the report, said that the report has shown that a lot more collaboration, intersectoral planning and political will is required.

“It is very clear that we have to start working together across the board. It has also shown very clearly that we are living in an increasingly connected world. It is so connected that the choices that an individual makes that what is on his/her plate or in terms of what they consume as lifestyle products can have huge implications for somebody very far remote. It is how people in distant places and their well being are tied together,” Subramanian told a group of journalists while explaining about the report.

The pressure of development on land and marine resources

The report said that more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. According to the report, the value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300 percent since 1970.

Land degradation however, has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the global land surface  Globally, crops are at risk from pollinator loss while 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.

The change in land and sea use was the top direct driver of change in nature followed by direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.

Indigenous people manage land resources better

The impact of human activity on land and marine environments has been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, said the report. Human actions have altered about three-quarters of land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment.

At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples and the report stresses that nature “managed by indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.”

But it also clarified that the areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature’s contributions to people are also home to large concentrations of indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities. It is “because of their strong dependency on nature and its contributions for subsistence, livelihoods and health, those communities will be disproportionately hard hit by those negative changes,” noted the report.

The report stressed that indigenous people manage land resources better. Photo by Yves Picq/Wikimedia Commons.

It said that positive contributions of indigenous people to sustainability can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities.

However, the report highlighted that when indigenous peoples or local communities are expelled from or threatened upon their lands, including by mining or industrial logging for export, it can spark contestation.

“At present, more than 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food, and land are currently occurring across the planet, including with at least 1,000 environmental activists and journalists killed between 2002 and 2013,” the report emphasised.

In India, indigenous people are facing similar pressures. Earlier this year, due to a Supreme Court order, millions of tribal people were facing eviction from forests as their right over the forests was not recognised. Though the court order was later stayed, it brought the tribal community together and they demanded support from political parties if they want the community’s vote.

Read more: Political parties compete for vote of India’s tribal community.

It further said that mining on land has increased dramatically and while it is still using less than one percent of the total land of earth it has had significant negative impacts on biodiversity, emissions of highly toxic pollutants, water quality, and water distribution, and human health.

Climate change worsening the impact on nature

According to the report, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and the fires, floods, and droughts that they can bring, have increased in the past 50 years, while the global average sea level has risen by 16 to 21 centimetres since 1900, and at a rate of more than three millimetres per year over the past two decades.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting safety net. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point. The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet,” said Sandra Díaz, who co-chaired the assessment, in a media statement.

Commenting on the learnings from the report for India, India-based wildlife conservationist Sandeep Tiwari stressed that policymakers need to go back to the drawing board to consider the impact of development on biodiversity.  

“In a country like India, the thrust is on improving the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). There are a lot of mining and big infrastructure projects. All this leads to an impact on biodiversity. We need to work on that and look for ways to prevent habitat loss,” Tiwari told Mongabay-India, recommending that, ”what policymakers need to do is spend more time on the drawing board to assess the impact of any development and look for mitigation measures both on the policy level and the ground level. However, the most important problem is that there are a lot of mechanisms, norms, and laws but their implementation has been a major problem and that needs to be looked at.”


Banner image: At least 12.5 percent of the world’s total animal and plant species facing the threat of extinction over the next few decades. Photo by Betty Wills (Atsme)/Wikimedia Commons.

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