Mass Extinction: Fewer Creatures-Great and Small

I don’t like market-based views either-but it’s still an interesting article.


The single biggest problem for Life on Earth is
that there are so many problems all at once.

“Bees can’t pollinate, nor can trees store carbon, if they have all died.”

“Business as usual is simply not an option,” she says. But that is the option many
governments seem to be choosing.

The Economist October 16, 2008

Fewer creatures great and small

Nature needs a bail-out, say those who fear that
a poorer, hotter world will bode ill for life’s
infinite variety

GREEN-MINDED folk of many shades came to Spain
this month, to talk about the need to save from
human recklessness as much as possible of
nature’s bounty of genes, habitats and species.
They brought bad tidings. Common birds are in
decline across the world. Almost one in four
species of mammals is in danger of extinction. If
current trends continue until 2050, fisheries
will be exhausted. As it is, deforestation costs
the world more each year than the current
financial crisis has cost in total, one economist

In theory, virtually all the world’s governments
are committed to limiting the damage. In 1992, at
the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, they signed a
treaty called the Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD). In 2002, under its auspices,
they vowed to bring about “a significant
reduction” in the rate of loss of biodiversity by
2010. The pledge became one of the Millennium
Development Goals, the United Nations’ eight
fondest ambitions for the world.

Yet this target now looks unattainable, said most
participants at the World Conservation Congress,
which concluded in Barcelona on October 14th. The
meeting was awash with gloomy forecasts. The
International Union for the Conservation of
Nature (IUCN), the network of conservation groups
that organised the congress, released the latest
version of its “red list” of threatened species.
It describes the health of all species whose
populations have been assessed-almost 45,000 this
time round. At first glance, the proportion of
species at risk seemed to have fallen slightly.
But that, the compilers note, simply reflects the
expansion of its coverage beyond the creatures
seen as most in danger. Of 223 species whose
status has changed since last year, 82% were
closer to extinction.

The IUCN also released a “comprehensive
assessment” of the status of all known species of
mammals. It found that 22% were threatened or
extinct, and the well-being of a further 15% was
unknown. For amphibians, the outlook is grimmer:
a full 31% of them are at risk, and the status of
a further 25% is uncertain. Sampling of species
in other categories suggests similarly dire
outlooks, with some 24% of reptiles and 32% of
crabs thought to be threatened. For the most
part, these findings do not reflect the latest
data on global warming. But another IUCN study
released at the congress found that 35% of the
world’s birds, 52% of its amphibians and 71% of
its warm-water corals were “particularly
susceptible” to the threats from warming.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, which is studying global warming for the
UN, said 20-30% of species could die out if
global average temperatures rise by more than 2°C
or so. And even today’s rate of extinctions, one
Barcelona delegate noted, is 1,000 times faster
than the norm before man made a mess.

What does the loss of other species cost humans?
Many congress-goers talked about valuing
“ecosystem services”: natural processes that
benefit people, such as the pollination of crops,
the purification of water in wetlands and the
sequestration of carbon in soil and forests. A
study released this year said the world was
losing ¤50 billion ($68 billion) in ecosystem
services each year because of damage to nature.

Biodiversity underpins ecosystem services. Bees
can’t pollinate, nor can trees store carbon, if
they have all died. And it seems to matter that
ecosystems contain more than a handful of
species. Diverse systems are better at capturing
carbon, storing water and preserving fisheries.
Just how diverse an ecosystem has to be in order
to supply the goods and services needed by man is
a matter of debate-a debate made harder by the
fact that many species may have uses that man has
not yet found. And regardless of its uses for
humans, many see a moral imperative to save
biodiversity. Ecuador’s new constitution duly
confers on ecosystems “the inalienable right to
exist, flourish and evolve”.

In a report for the British government, Johan
Eliasch, a businessman and environmentalist,
suggests a virtuous circle: climate change could
be slowed, biodiversity saved and poverty
alleviated if forests were included in carbon
markets. Deforestation is responsible for so many
emissions that allowing countries to claim carbon
credits for reducing the pace at which they cut
down their forests could cut the cost of halving
global carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2030
by 50%. And, in the process, deforestation rates
would be reduced by 75% by 2030. But this would
cost the rich world money: $4 billion over the
next five years, and a further $11-19 billion a
year by 2020.

In the short term, there is little sign of
governments becoming better stewards of nature.
Only 30 or so of the 191 countries that are party
to the CBD have made plans to protect
biodiversity, as the treaty demands. Another
study released at the congress found that the
world’s biggest economies were spending only a
fraction of the money needed to police protected
areas; they were also falling short on legal and
administrative measures needed to stop the spread
of invasive species and eradicate the trade in
endangered species. Money, of course, is likely
to get tighter as the world economy slows and
governments rescue struggling banks.

Many at the congress said that nature, too,
needed a bail-out. As Andrew Mitchell of Global
Canopy Programme, a forest-conservation group,
puts it: “Rainforests work as a giant natural
utility company. If we don’t start paying for it,
we will get cut off. Instead of simply preventing
the next global credit crunch, it is time to
start thinking about averting the rainforest
crunch as well.” Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the head
of the IUCN, agrees. “Business as usual is simply
not an option,” she says. But that is the option
many governments seem to be choosing.

Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The
Economist Group. All rights reserved.


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