(Image: Unsplash/Mark Kucharski)

As yet another Australian election campaign became mired in squabbling over the cost of cutting carbon emissions, conservation scientists were convening in Paris to drop a bombshell.

Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades — more than at any time in human history. The number is as brutal as it is mind-boggling — our planet faces the loss of more than 50 species per day, every day, for the next 50 years.  

What’s in the report

A landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) paints an apocalyptic vision of a world not just battered and ravaged by ham-fisted human activity, but irrevocably ruined by land-clearing, overfishing and man-made climate change.  

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever completed. It is the meticulous and frightening culmination of three years’ work by 145 expert authors from 50 countries. Assessing 15,000 scientific and government sources over a 50-year period of change, it paints a series of ever more disturbing scenarios for the coming decades.  

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IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, describes as “ominous” the unprecedented deterioration of the health of the planet’s ecosystems.“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” The extinction risk list includes more than 40% of amphibian species and one in every three marine mammals and reef-forming corals.  

What it means for the election

The blithe irrelevance of the 2019 election campaign has been put into rather stark relief by the report, which illustrates the global scale of ecosystem damage inflicted not merely by climate change but by western-style agricultural practices, rampant overfishing and plastics use.  

Climate change has been identified as the fastest growing threat, driven by rapid increases in human population and consumption and rapacious resource extraction. The report found degradation has been less severe or avoided entirely in areas held or managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities.  

The Australian government’s tardiness in utilising the knowledge of First Peoples in its response to the recent catastrophic loss of fish life in the Murray-Darling Basin shows how little prepared we are to tap into the knowledge and sustainability practices of traditional custodians who have managed these natural “resources” for 60,000 years.  

The impacts go far beyond nebulous concerns about biodiversity and habitat loss and directly to the economic future of the world. For developing countries, the multiple threats are existential: such countries lack the institutional, economic and financial resources to prevent serious damage to life and society. For developed countries like Australia, they represent serious economic impacts that will materially reduce the standard of living of Australians as agricultural industries struggle, areas become uninsurable, tourism industries suffer and maritime exports are halted by weather events.  

Of six policy scenarios tested, only those that featured bold transformative change came close to stemming the downward spiral towards ecosystem collapse.  

Dire as many of the scenarios it outlines may be, the report is not pure doomsday.

There is a blueprint of sorts for sustainability, provided urgent action is taken at the political and industrial level to transform sectors such as agriculture, forestry, energy and finance.