Rapid Biodiversity Loss Continues in Absence of Political Action and Accurate Assessments of Ecosystem Values

Finding ways to value ecosystem health economically and to engage the world’s indigenous peoples in the process is key to saving biological diversity, a Worldwatch author suggests in the Institute’s most recent book. Such efforts are all the more urgent because the addition of more plant and animal species to lists of those threatened or endangered shows no signs of slowing down, despite rising public awareness of the importance of biodiversity.

The Worldwatch Institute is raising awareness of biodiversity losses worldwide and what individuals and institutions can do to confront these trends. The current rate of species extinction is up to 1,000 times above the Earth’s normal extinction rate, a level of loss that has not occurred since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The Worldwatch Institute, in its recently released report State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, highlights the threats to biodiversity and methods for combating the exploitation and degradation of ecosystems and their services.

From 1980 to 2008, an average of 52 species per year moved one category closer to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species – a rate that shows no signs of slowing. Although mass extinctions have occurred on Earth throughout geologic time, the current loss of biodiversity is the first to be caused overwhelmingly by a single species: humans. The five principal pressures causing biodiversity loss are habitat change, over exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change, all of which are almost exclusively human driven.

“The current model of consumer societies is destroying the planet and its resources,” says Bo Normander, director of Worldwatch Institute Europe and a contributing author to State of the World 2012. “This must change in order for the planet to sustain future generations.”

At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, leaders made a commitment to preserve biological resources by signing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), but there remains a fundamental lack of political will to act on biodiversity threats. In 2002, the CBD promised “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” by 2010, yet within those eight years, most countries failed to meet their targets.

To combat the loss of Earth’s natural capital, scientists strive to assign concrete values to natural resources with the hope that an economic appreciation of ecosystem services may facilitate improved planning and management of Earth’s systems. Yet progress on developing accurate, straightforward, and widely accepted measures for assessing ecosystem values remains slow.

“Accurate valuation of ecosystem services is vital to create greater accountability and awareness of the ecological impact of our actions,” comments Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch senior fellow and State of the World 2012 project co-director. “By understanding ecosystem services in monetary or physical terms, leaders can assess and improve the sustainability of their policies.”

Current international practices discount future generations by effectively valuing ecosystem services at zero. Such undervaluing is often a result of society’s ignorance of the full benefits that humans derive from an intact ecosystem. Thus, individuals make decisions based on the immediate financial gains of logging a forest, for example, instead of considering the “invisible” benefits of the forest, such as carbon sequestration, flood protection, and habitat for pollinators.

To truly protect biodiversity and value ecosystem services effectively, multinational cooperation is required. Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, released in April 2012, focuses on steps in biodiversity protection and other areas that can be taken at Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the historic 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to make progress toward sustainable development.

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