A key report by the UN warns the natural world could hit “tipping points” which could see irreversible damage to key areas including coral reefs and freshwater lakes and the loss of large parts of Amazon rainforest.
The loss of wildlife and habitats would have severe effects on humanity, hitting food sources and industry, increasing the release of greenhouse gases and making it harder to tackle poverty.
The third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook confirms that targets drawn up eight years ago by world leaders to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010 have not been met.
The report said there had been some successes towards meeting the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), including protecting more land and sea areas, devoting more money to tackling wildlife losses and addressing the threat of invasive species.
But the UN warned that the main reasons behind the disappearance of species and whole ecosystems, including climate change, pollution and over-exploitation of resources, were not going away – and in some cases were getting worse.
Experts said efforts to tackle the loss of natural systems must be given much higher priority as “business as usual” would jeopardise the future of all societies and particularly poor people.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: “Conserving biodiversity cannot be an afterthought once other objectives are addressed – it is the foundation on which many of these objectives are built.
“We need a new vision for biological diversity for a healthy planet and a sustainable future for humankind.”
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “Many economies remain blind to the huge value of the diversity of animals, plants and other life-forms and their role in healthy and functioning ecosystems from forests and freshwaters to soils, oceans and even the atmosphere.
“Many countries are beginning to factor natural capital into some areas of economic and social life with important returns, but this needs rapid and sustained scaling-up.”
He warned: “Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world: the truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of six billion, heading to over nine billion by 2050.”
According to CBD executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf, the news on biodiversity was “not good”.
He warned that species were being lost at unprecedented levels with the rate of extinctions about 1,000 times higher than what might be expected naturally.
The UN also warned that wildlife losses and climate change had to be tackled together to avoid the most severe impacts of both.
The report, which drew on around 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 110 national reports on biodiversity submitted by governments as part of its assessment, warned that species and ecosystems continued to decline.
Species which were considered to be at risk of extinction are moving closer to vanishing, the study said.
Habitats, including freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, coral reefs, sea-ice areas and seagrass beds, are all in decline, although there has been “significant progress” in slowing the loss of tropical forest and mangroves in some parts of the world.
Even the diversity of crop varieties and livestock is falling, with more than 60 animal breeds going extinct since 2000.
Predictions for the 21st century show continuing – and even accelerating – extinctions, loss of habitats and changes in the distribution and abundance of species. But the report said while preventing further losses would be “extremely challenging”, it could be done if urgent, concerted and effected action was started immediately.
While biodiversity loss has serious impacts on economies and cultures, the report said there were opportunities to address the crisis.
For example, restoring wetlands could provide habitat for species as well as improve water supplies, manage flooding and remove pollutants.
And better protection of the natural world should be seen as a “prudent and cost-effective investment” to reduce the risk of disasters, the study said.
Action to conserve species and ecosystems – for example through expanding protected areas – will also be needed, while wild areas will need to be restored.