'We're the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it'
Efforts to preserve nature are way off what is required, and a “global deal” in the mould of the Paris climate agreement is needed to bring it back from the brink, a report has warned.
Populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have fallen off a cliff – dropping by an average of 60 per cent in just over 40 years.
To combat this, WWF says there must be a dramatic re-think of the status quo, as conservationists can no longer afford to merely recommend “more of the same” nature reserves and programmes to save individual species.
In their latest Living Planet Report, the environmental group singles out overexploitation of the planet’s resources and the food system specifically as the biggest issues that must be addressed.
“Right now the destruction of nature is seen as the price of development, and we cannot continue like that,” Tony Juniper, WWF’s executive director told The Independent.
Familiar British animals like puffins and hedgehogs joined more exotic species like elephants, rhinos and polar bears on the list of species that have dropped in numbers massively between 1970 and 2014 – the most recent year for which data is available.
The conclusions were based on information collected from 16,704 populations of 4,005 animal species, which declined an average of 60 per cent during this period.
These trends have been particularly pronounced in tropical regions and freshwater habitats. Just a quarter of the planet’s surface is free from human activity, and this is expected to shrink to a tenth by 2050.
This habitat loss, combined with poaching, pollution and climate change, have all contributed to a crisis that experts think can no longer be handled using conventional tactics.
“We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it,” said Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.
“The collapse of global wildlife populations is a warning sign that nature is dying. But instead of putting the world on life support, we’re using a sticking plaster.”
However, Professor Ken Norris, director of Science at Zoological Society of London, who helped compile the report said despite the shocking figures “all hope is not lost”.
“We have an opportunity to design a new path forward that allows us to co-exist sustainably with the wildlife we depend upon,” he said.
An explosion of human activity, including overfishing, deforestation and pesticide use, has been at the heart of many species’ declines.
However, the report warned that all economic activity depends on nature, with natural resources estimated to provide services worth $125 trillion (£97 trillion) every year.
To preserve this value for future generations, WWF called for a game-changing commitment backed by governments and businesses around the world to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity.
“We need a new international agreement, a new global deal for nature, to enable countries to get at the root causes of this,” said Mr Juniper.
Though the suggestion has echoes of the Paris agreement put in place to limit global warming, Mr Juniper said such a solution for nature would have to be even more all-encompassing.
“The Paris accord would be part of the bigger deal because what we need to do now is recognise that the conservation of biodiversity, the reduction of carbon emission and the promotion of sustainable development alongside who we are going to produce enough food – these things are all fundamentally related to each other,” he said.
Besides bringing together all of these factors on a global level, Mr Juniper noted that there is a role for individual action as well, singling out changing attitudes to food as a key strategy.
“The biggest single thing most of us can do is cut down our meat consumption,” he said.