When the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2020 says human-caused climate change is projected to become as, or more important than other drivers of biodiversity loss in the coming decades, it is yet another attestation of the harsh reality. Though species overexploitation, invasive species and diseases and pollution are all considered threats to biodiversity, none can match the often irreversible damages caused to Planet Earth by humans.
Climate change creates an ongoing destructive feedback loop in which the worsening climate leads to the decline in genetic variability, species richness and populations, and that loss of biodiversity adversely affects the climate. For example, deforestation leads to an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, warming the planet and exacerbating forest fires.
Just a handful of countries — Russia, Canada, Brazil and Australia — contain regions without a human footprint. But these wilderness areas are facing irreversible erosion, affecting other species and humans’ ability to adapt to climate change. According to the report, no part of the ocean is entirely unaffected by overfishing, pollution, coastal development and other human-caused stressors. Humans depend on marine ecosystems to provide food, climate regulation, carbon storage and coastal protection — all of which are affected by these activities and are exacerbated by climate change.
Between devastating wildfires and the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has made it clear that humans and nature have never been more intertwined. The report shows that the natural support for human life is rapidly declining — and that it’s up to citizens, governments and business leaders to come together at a scale never-before-seen to do something about it. Experts expressed concern that many of the major gains in human health in the past 50 years — such as a decreased rate of child mortality and poverty and an increase in life expectancy — could be undone or even reversed due to loss of nature.
The rate of infectious disease emergence has increased dramatically over the past 80 years — and nearly half of these diseases are connected to land-use change, agriculture and the food industry. One study cited by the report suggests that diseases originating in animals are responsible for 2.5bn cases of illness and nearly 3mn deaths every year. “How humanity chooses to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and how it addresses the looming threats from global environmental change, will influence the health of generations to come,” wrote Thomas Pienkowski and Sarah Whitmee of the University of Oxford.
Similarly to the economic crash in 2008, lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic have reduced humanity’s demand by nearly 10% — a change that experts say is unlikely to last without major structural change. While the report paints a tragic picture for the future of the natural world, it urges that current trends can be flattened, and even reversed, with urgent action. In just the last year alone, natural disasters, from California’s wildfires to severe droughts in Australia, have cost billions of dollars globally. Experts warn that economic decision-makers need to take into account not only produced and human capital, but also natural capital when crafting public and private policy.
To feed 10bn people by 2050, humans will need to adopt a healthier way of eating. Diet-related disease risk is the leading cause of premature mortality globally and food production is the main driver of biodiversity loss and water pollution, also accounting for 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Experts recommend humans adopt a diet that consists of a balanced proportion of whole grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans and pulses, with animal-derived products like fish, eggs, dairy and meat consumed in moderation.