Massive New Report Proves That Humans Are the Worst Species

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Dirt Road Leading Towards Trees Against Sky

Artur Korpik / EyeEm / Getty Images

A shocking new UN report, the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, reveals our devastating impact on nature.

Oh, humans. So much potential, but so short sighted. We are destroying the planet’s ecosystems with shocking speed and alacrity, not only killing off other species at alarming rates, but threatening our very existence as well. We are recklessly biting the hand that feeds us. Anyone paying attention to the state of nature knows this, but a new report really lays it out for all to see.

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” begins the summary of the 1,500-page report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Hello, dystopian near-future.

Comprised of research and analyses by hundreds of experts from 50 countries and based on 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report is the most comprehensive assessment of its kind. While the full report will be released later in the year, the summary of its findings is out now; it was approved by the United States and 131 other countries.

And what it reveals is very grim.

Stark Warning

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The authors found that around one million animal and plant species are now facing extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history – thanks to impacts that our species is perpetuating. Much of the destruction is linked to food and energy; tellingly, these trends have been "less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities." (So, an amendment to the title above: Indigenous peoples and local communities are an exception to my "worst species" qualification.)

workers spraying pesticide in a field

Jinning Li / Shutterstock

Five Most Destructive Forces

While climate change may seem like the most pressing issue, the authors ranked the most destructive forces – and climate change came in third. They list five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far.

These culprits are, in descending order:
(1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.
mining Open copper mine pit in Spain.

Denis Zhitnik / Shutterstock

By the Numbers

There are so many stark, depressing numbers in the summary – here are some highlights, or maybe more accurately, lowlights.

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been “severely altered” by human actions.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • Raw timber harvest has risen by 45 percent and some 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones,’ totaling more than 245,000 km2 - a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
Bali beach pollution Beach pollution at Kuta beach, Bali

Maxim Blinkov / Shutterstock

Formidable Extinction Statistics

The summary lists a number of categories that the report addresses. The extinction statistics are especially sobering:

  • Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades
  • 500,000 of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long term survival without habitat restoration
  • 40 percent of amphibian species are threatened with extinction
  • Almost 33 percent of reef forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and 33 percent of marine mammals threatened with extinction
  • 25 percent of species are threatened with extinction across terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups that have been studied in sufficient detail
  • At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction by human actions since the 16th century
  • 10 percent of insect species estimated to be threatened with extinction
  • 20 decline in average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes, mostly since 1900
  • 560 domesticated breeds of mammals that will be extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more threatened
Hawksbill turtlem Hawksbill turtle in an Indian Ocean coral reef, Maldives.

Andrey Armyagov / Shutterstock

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net.' But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz, who co-chaired the Assessment.

So humans, what are we going do? The one thing that may redeem us is that it is not too late. The report outlines global targets and policy scenarios that can right this course that has gone so far astray. If we act now, maybe we won't have to go down in history as the worst species – we can give that title to mosquitoes.

In the meantime, on a personal level, as strangely specific as this sounds, one thing we can do is watch our beef and palm oil consumption. Land being converted to agriculture was the top driver of negative impact: The report notes:

100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, resulting mainly from cattle ranching in Latin America (about 42 million hectares) and plantations in South-East Asia (about 7.5 million hectares, of which 80 percent is for palm oil, used mostly in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel) among others.

But giving up burgers isn't going to fix the environment without a lot of work coming from the top. So really the most important thing we can do is vote for leaders who will work towards, rather than against (ahem), these global targets and policy scenarios.

Hope If Humans Rise to the Challenge

“The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” Watson said. “Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

The question that remains to be seen is this: Are we up to the change?