Updated: April 10, 2021 8:00:16 am
Many animals and plants unique to the world’s most scenic natural places face extinction if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, according to a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation. Climate change will negatively affect most native and endemic species — those that are only found in very specific places. In particular, the analysis shows that all endemic species from islands and more than four out of five endemic species from mountains are at high risk of extinction due to climate change alone.
However, remaining within the climate goals of the Paris Agreement — which aims to keep global heating well below 2°C, ideally at 1.5°C, compared to a baseline — would save the majority of species.
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A global team of scientists analysed almost 300 biodiversity hotspots — places with exceptionally high numbers of animal and plant species — on land and at sea. Many of these hotspots contain endemic species that are unique to one geographic location.
They found that if the planet heats by over 3°C, then a third of endemic species living on land, and about half of endemic species living in the sea, face extinction. On mountains, 84% of endemic animals and plants face extinction at these temperatures, while on islands that number rises to 100%. Overall, 92% of land-based endemic species and 95% of marine endemics face negative consequences, such as a reduction in numbers, at 3°C. Current policies put the world on track for around 3°C of heating.
Endemic species include some of the world’s most iconic animals and plants. Endemic species threatened by climate change include lemurs, which are unique to Madagascar, and the snow leopard, one of the most charismatic animals of the Himalayas. They also include important medical plants such as the lichen Lobaria pindarensis, used to alleviate arthritis.
In Asia, islands including the Indian Ocean islands, the Philippines and Sri Lanka along with the Western Ghat mountains could lose most of their endemic plants due to climate change by 2050.
The study found that endemic species are 2.7 times more likely to go extinct with unchecked temperature increases than species that are widespread, because they are only found in one place; if climate change alters the habitat where they live, they are at risk of permanent extinction.
If greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, then places like the Caribbean islands, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka could see most of their endemic plants go extinct as early as 2050. The tropics are especially vulnerable, with over 60% of tropical endemic species facing extinction due to climate change alone.
But if countries reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, then most endemic species will survive, the analysis found. In total, just 2% of endemic land species and 2% of endemic marine species face extinction at 1.5°C, and 4% of each at 2°C.
Shobha S Maharaj, island specialist from the Caribbean Environmental Science and Renewable Energy Journal, and author of the study, said: “This study finds extinction risk due to climate change for geographically rare species living on islands to be over eight times higher than on mainland regions. The geographical rarity of these species makes them of global value to nature. Such species cannot move easily to more favourable environments and their extinction could result in disproportionate global species loss.”
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