Earth’s species disappearing at an ever-increasing rate

A third of all species have disappeared from the American continent since the first Europeans arrived. And one in four species in Europe is losing ground. This according to new reports on biodiversity and ecosystem services. “If we are to address problems, we need better coordination among countries”, says Ulf Molau, professor emeritus of plant ecology and one of the authors behind the report on Europe and Central Asia.

In March, four regional reports on the great variety of species in the world were presented at the annual meeting of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Medellín, Colombia. In addition to the reports on Europe and Central Asia, there were also reports for the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

“Biodiversity and ecosystem services were not previously prioritiesed in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since these issues were somewhat unfairly treated, IPBES was formed in 2012”, says Ulf Molau.

If the IPCC can be said to “take the temperature” of the Earth’s climate, the IPBES global platform provides answers to how the millions of different species on Earth are doing.
“In Europe we have to protect our national parks. In Poland, for example, the last virgin forests are threatened”, Ulf says.

The European countries vary when it comes to protecting animals, plants, seas, lakes and land areas. As far as Sweden is concerned, the goal adopted at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya in 2010 is within reach: 17 per cent of land areas and 10 per cent of marine areas are protected. But the statistics are deceptive.
“The protected land areas in Sweden are largely mountainous regions. And certainly we’re seeing positive developments in areas such as Kosterhavet, with the establishment of the national park there, but there are problems in many other coastal areas. At several locations on the West Coast, seashore meadows are disappearing, for example. This has meant that the number of wadering birds has fallen dramatic over the last 10 years.”

The IPBES regional reports are based on data from hundreds of researchers from various disciplines around the world. Local communities have also contributed information for the reports, as well as various networks, such as birdwatchers.
“With the help of the various networks of birdwatchers, we have a decent check on how common different bird species are. We also have pretty good monitoring of the plant world. On the other hand, the insect side is more difficult to describe. Of course, there is an incredible number of insect species as well.”

But is it so important to maintain all the different species? Can’t we get along without some of them?
“It’s vital that we retain biodiversity. This is necessary in part for the stability of ecosystems. The species depend on each other. And in part because monocultures are much more vulnerable. And especially because we need access to large genetic diversity so we have multiple alternatives in the future.”

Ulf Molau. Photo: Mats Lindroth.

Ulf points to the island of Bali as an example of how badly things can turn out otherwise.
“The island is almost entirely rice paddies nowadays. Everything else has disappeared, except the temple groves.”

The work of IPBES is based on scientific studies. About 1,300 scientists from all over the world assess the current state of knowledge. On the panel there is broad scientific expertise in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. More than 10 Swedish researchers from different universities have participated in work on the regional reports, including three from the University of Gothenburg.

A fifth report on land degradation from a global perspective (Land Degradation and Restoration) also was presented at the annual meeting in Medellín. Ulf is one of the researchers behind this report. Many of the Earth is threatened by land degradation through deforestation, flooding, overpopulation, drought, fires and overgrazing. He has seen clear examples of overgrazing during field work in New Zealand.
“Intensive sheep farming for more than a hundred years has led to erosion and widespread land degradation in southeastern New Zealand. In some places there is only a hard crust left. It will take an extremely long time to restore the land. All you can do is wait.”

It’s easier to restore the land after landslides – for example, as a result of monsoon rains. This can be taken care of through reforestation, but it costs a lot of money.

A common denominator for solving all problems is that countries have to work together. During the IPBES meeting week in Colombia, government representatives from more than 100 countries met to discuss the conclusions. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency represented Sweden.
“In the reports we point out problems, but the problems have to be resolved through collaboration among the countries.”