Over 100 billion people have walked the planet, making a gigantic stamp on the Earth. Around three quarters of the land and around two-thirds of the marine environment have been significantly altered by humans, impacting the carbon cycle and changing the prospects for many species.
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Approximately one million species of plants and animals face extinction
Climate change, pollution (300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and industrial waste are dumped annually)1 and changing land use have increased the pace at which species are dying out. A landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2019 suggests that approximately one million species of plants and animals face extinction.2 Professors from Stanford University describe this as “biological annihilation”.3 In contrast to past extinctions, this is a human-made crisis, with ecosystems degrading faster than ever.
As each species is closely linked to others in a complex web of life, there are likely to be cascade and multiplier effects. In the oceans, the phytoplankton at the base of the food chain have become about ten per cent less productive since the start of the industrial era.4 This is a potential threat to numerous forms of marine life, from the smallest shrimp to gargantuan whales.
On land, pollinators are in decline, challenging the plants that need insects to reproduce. Less diverse plant life also means possible extinctions in related organisms – in those needing specific types of vegetation to breed, for example. Ultimately, less diverse ecosystems tend to be less productive and less resilient.
The human population is placing growing pressure on other species
Overall, we know the human population is placing growing pressure on other species, but do not fully understand the impact of homo sapiens – so our own capacity to make a difference is limited. “We cannot help every species adapt, for two reasons,” explains Professor Richard Tol from the University of Sussex, a former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Many species are still unknown, and their place in ecology is also unknown. The other is simply a question of scale.”
Since the 1750s, at least 571 species of plants are thought to have become extinct in the wild.5 Recent losses of non-plant species include the Pinta Island tortoise of the Galapagos Islands, which died out in 2012.6 Lost mammals include the Pyrenean ibex, declared extinct in 2000,7 and the sub-Saharan Western black rhinoceros, whose last member died in 2011.8