A first-of-its-kind report released on Monday by an international group of scientists, whose findings were reported in The Indian Express Tuesday, is being hailed as one of the most important scientific studies of our time. The report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the most comprehensive scientific evaluation ever made of the state of our nature, and gives a detailed account of health of the species that inhabit this earth, and the condition of habitats that they live in and depend upon.
Among the findings that are making global headlines is the assessment that as many as 1 million different species, out of a total of an estimated 8 million plant and animal species, are facing the threat of extinction, more than at any previous time, because of changes brought about in natural environments by human activities. The report says that 75% of Earth’s land surface and 66% marine environments have been “significantly altered”, and that “over 85%” of wetland area had been lost. But, on an average, these trends were less severe on areas controlled or managed by indigenous people and local communities (like tribal communities in India).
What is IPBES
IPBES is a global scientific body very similar in composition and functioning to the better-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that makes periodic reviews of scientific literature to make projections about the earth’s future climate. IPCC’s assessment reports, which won it the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, form the scientific basis on which the international negotiations on climate change have been happening.
IPBES is mandated to do a similar job for natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Formed in 2012, this is the first global assessment report by the IPBES (IPCC, set up in 1988, has produced five assessment reports, and sixth one is under preparation). IPBES has produced a few regional and specialised reports earlier. Like IPCC, IPBES does not produce any new science, it only evaluates existing scientific knowledge to make assessments and projections.
Unlike IPCC, however, the IPBES assessment reports are likely to feed into and inform several multilateral processes. The two UN Conventions — Convention on Biological Diversity that addresses biodiversity issues, and the Convention on Combating Desertification that deals with sustainable land management — are likely to be guided by this report in future. It is possible that so would be a host of other international agreements and processes, like the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The India connection
The report does not have country-specific information. But as a major biodiversity hotspot, vast areas, especially the coastline, of which are under tremendous stress due to large population, India can identify with most of the trends pointed out in the report.
For example, it says 23% of global land area had shown a reduction in productivity due to degradation, and that between 100 to 300 million people were at an increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection. It says plastic pollution had increased 10 times from 1980, the number of large dams (those with a height of 15 m or more) had reached almost 50,000, and that human population had more than doubled since 1970s, and the number of urban areas had doubled since 1992. All these trends have been clearly visible in the case of India, and bring with them the associated risks to natural ecosystems highlighted in the report.