Folder Biodiversity Trends

Current Status

 

The Living Planet

The Living Planet Report (LPR) is a World Wildlife Fund periodic update on the state of the world's ecosystems according to two measures:

  • The Living Planet Index, which measures the human pressure put on renewable natural resources; and
  • The Ecological Footprint, which compares human consumption of natural resources with the Earth's biological capacity to regenerate them. 

Earth's Productive Capacity 

Invented by Drs. Mathis Wackenagel and William Reese, the Ecological Footprint (EF) is a measure of the consumption or 'load' imposed on the natural environment by the human population in a given country, region, or the entire world.  The EF represents the biologically productive capacity of the land and sea necessary to sustain current levels of resource consumption and waste discharge by the respective population.

The Earth has about 11.4 billion hectares of productive land and sea space.  This number excludes areas considered unproductive - ice caps, desert, and open ocean - or about one quarter of the Earth's surface area.  Divided between the global population of six billion, about 1.9 hectares of renewable natural resources is available per person.  In 1999, the EF of the average African or Asian consumer was less than 1.4 hectares, the average Western European EF was about 5.0 hectares, and the average North American's EF was about 9.6 hectares.  The EF of the world average consumer in 1999 was 2.3 hectares per person, or 20% above the Earth's biological capacity of 1.9 hectares per person.  According to the calculations, humanity now exceeds the planet's capacity to sustain its consumption of renewable resources. 

However, factors may change the EF of a given area.  Changes in population size, renewable resource consumption patterns, and improvements in production systems through better management and new technologies all have a direct influence on the EF of a biologically productive area and its average productivity per hectare.   

Rate of Biodiversity Loss

The Living Planet Index (LPI) shows that between 1970 and 2000, biodiversity declined by about 35%.  The LPI is the average of three ecosystem-based indices that measure human pressures on natural ecosystems arising from the consumption of natural resources and the effects of pollution.  During the period of 1970 and 2000, the Forest Ecosystem Index declined by about 15%, the marine species population index fell by about 35%, and the freshwater species population index plummeted 55%.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 60% of the world's important fish stocks are 'in urgent need of management' to rehabilitate them or keep them from being over-fished.  Currently some 80 million metric tons of fish are available each year for direct human consumption.  FAO expects the demand for fish products to increase to 110 to 120 million metric tons by the year 2010 as a result of global population growth.   

Mass Extinction

The LPI provides a quantitative confirmation that the world is currently undergoing a very rapid loss of biodiversity comparable with the great mass extinction events that have previously occurred only five times in the Earth's history.  However, unlike that of other mass extinction events of the pre-human past, the current one is the result of human activity, and not on natural phenomena.  Human beings are currently causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  If present trends continue one half of all species of life on Earth will be extinct in 100 years.

According to a survey conducted by the American Museum of Natural History and Louis Harris Associates, Inc., seven out of ten biologists believe the world is now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction of living things in the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet.  According to the study, scientists believe some of the most important effects of this dramatic species loss are:

  • Serious impairment of the environment's ability to recover from natural and human-induced disasters.
  • Destruction of the natural systems that purify the world's air and water.
  • Reduction of the potential for the discovery of new medicines.
  • Increased flooding, drought, and other environmental disasters.
  • Substantial contribution to the degradation of the world's economies, thereby weakening the social and political stability of nations across the globe.   

The United Nations Environment Programme Global Environment Outlook 3 (GEO-3) report highlights the scale of the problem that many conservationists believe is set to get rapidly worse over the next 30 years as wildlife 'hotspots' are either destroyed or invaded by a less diverse range of species.  Some scientists estimate that the 'sixth wave' of mass extinction is between 1,000 and 10,000 times greater than the normal 'background' rate at which species are lost naturally.  The scientists who contributed to the GEO-3 report identify such a dramatic fall in biological diversity as one of the most pressing problems facing humanity.   

The IUCN List of Threatened Species confirms the global extinction crisis.  The list shows that while the overall percentage of threatened mammals and birds have not greatly changed in the past several years, the magnitude of risk, shown by movements to the higher risk categories, has increased.