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WWF State of Nature report 2020: What you need to know

Human health depends intrinsically on nature’s health. And yet, the health of our natural world has never been in such a perilous position as it is today.

The State of Nature report 2020, published by the World Wide Fund for Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is a stark warning that our relationship with the natural world is fundamentally broken.

Director General of WWF, Marco Lambertini, writes in his foreword to the report: “The Living Planet Report 2020 clearly outlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives.”

“This highlights that a deep cultural and systemic shift is urgently needed, one that so far our civilisation has failed to embrace: a transition to a society and economic system that values nature, stops taking it for granted and recognises that we depend on nature more than nature depends on us.”

However, he adds: “We still have a chance to put things right. It’s time for the world to agree a New Deal for Nature and People, committing to stop and reverse the loss of nature by the end of this decade and build a carbon-neutral and nature-positive economy and society.”

The report is, without question, terrifying. It is a damning indictment of the destructiveness of our current political, economic and societal systems.

The global Living Planet Index (LPI) tracks the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians around the world, and the data used from monitoring these populations is compiled under the LPI to calculate an average percentage change in population sizes since 1970.

The global LPI for 2020 shows an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. However, this does not tell the full story.

Most importantly, what lies behind this 68% figure is the inequality in population losses in different regions on the globe. A staggering 94% decline in LPI has taken place in the tropical subregions of Latin America and the Caribbean; in Africa this is 65%, for Asia-Pacific 45%, whilst in North America, and Europe and Central Asia, LPI decline has been 33% and 24% respectively.

As the report says: “The 94% decline in the LPI for the tropical subregions of the Americas is the most striking result observed in any region. The conversion of grasslands, savannahs, forests and wetlands, the overexploitation of species, climate change, and the introduction of alien species are key drivers.”

In addition, the freshwater LPI shows that freshwater species are falling at alarming rates, with a decline by an average 84% since 1970; inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly at risk, as well as larger species such as river dolphins, otters, and hippos, which are all the targets of severe overexploitation. Although the report adds that cross-boundary collaboration can be a success, and reintroduction efforts such as with that of the Eurasian beaver (including in the UK) have been able to protect the future of species.

The second chapter of the report, ‘Our World in 2020’ states that, “Global economic growth in the last half century has changed our world unrecognisably, driving exponential health, knowledge and standard-of-living improvements. Yet this has come at a huge cost to nature and the stability of the Earth’s operating systems that sustain us.”

Put simply, the Earth cannot sustain our way of living. Humanity’s ecological footprint, which itself is widely unequal between poorer and richer nations, has increased by 173% in the last 60 years, and according to the UN, now exceeds the planet’s biocapacity by 56%. The report warns that whilst the Coronavirus pandemic ahs reduced humanity’s demand by nearly 10%, this could come at a severe cost if the pandemic delays action on climate change and biodiversity loss.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the report is that we need, “a paradigm shift in the way we assess nature.” The report argues that people value nature in various ways; whilst some focus on nature’s material contributions, others put more emphasis on the nonmaterial benefits of the natural world.

“Until recently, the conceptualisation of, and practical work on, ecosystem services have focused on assessing and valuing those service flows with biophysical and economic approaches coming from natural sciences and economics respectively.”

However, “This approach has largely failed to engage a range of perspectives from social sciences, humanities, or those of local actors including Indigenous peoples and local communities.”

Thus, in Chapter 4 (‘Imagining a Roadmap for People and Nature’), Michael Obersteiner, of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, argues that multiple computer models can be used to, “understand how we can reverse the loss of nature, save millions of species from extinction, and guard humans against a risky future.”

He adds: “And the models are all telling us the same thing: that we still have an opportunity to flatten, and reverse, the loss of nature if we take urgent and unprecedented conservation action and make transformational changes in the way we produce and consume food.”

Indeed, the report notes, pioneering modelling has provided, for the first time, a ‘proof of concept’ that, “we can halt, and reverse, terrestrial biodiversity loss from land-use change.”

Finally, the report calls on people from across the globe to be part of the movement to ‘bend the curve’ and turn the tide of biodiversity loss; “Citizens, governments and business leaders around the globe will need to be part of a movement for change with a scale, urgency and ambition never seen before.”

In an essay on WWF’s website, David Attenborough (whose documentary, ‘A Life on Our Planet’ will be in cinemas later this month), argues that the key to driving “systemic shifts” in our societies requires a change in perspective.

Attenborough, who will present a documentary, ‘Extinction: The Facts’ on BBC One this Sunday, writes that, “A change from viewing nature as something that’s optional or ‘nice to have’ to the single greatest ally we have in restoring balance to our world.”

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the report is that it features neither on the front pages of national newspapers nor at the top of news headlines.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas 2020. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.