Ecosystems in decline

Ecosystems provide the essential goods and services that sustain human and non-human life. Everything from the purification of air and water to the provision of food, fuel and fibre depends on them. But their health is being systematically undermined by changes in land-use, pollution, habitat loss, climate change and poor land management.

The symptoms of this ecosystem decline include deteriorating soil quality, a dramatic reduction in biodiversity, shrinking fish stocks and deforestation. That’s bad news for the global economy, which is fundamentally reliant on healthy, fully-functioning ecosystems. If they collapse, industries like agriculture, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics won’t survive for long.

According to one recent study,1 environmental externalities – including loss of natural resources and nature-based services – are already costing the global economy $4.7 trillion per year. Yet the health of ecosystems is rarely factored into investment decisions. 

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Current trajectory

Threatened ecosystems

  • According to the WWF’s 2014 The Living Planet Index, the number of wild vertebrates on Earth has halved in the past 40 years.1
  • Around 13 million hectares of forest are lost every year to deforestation, primarily for agriculture,2 resulting in nonlinear changes (i.e. accelerating, abrupt and potentially irreversible) that have important implications for human wellbeing – as well as a disproportionate effect on the world’s poorest people.
  • Globally, 40% of the soil used for agriculture is degraded.3 Every year approximately 24 billion tons of fertile soil is lost, at a rate far greater than the average replenishment rate.4
  • In 2011, over 90% of marine fish stocks were fully fished or over-exploited (close to 30% over-exploited).5

Implications

  • Ecosystem decline has significant and wide-ranging implications, particularly for subsistence farmers, who depend upon them for their livelihoods. Business value is also undermined when the ecosystem services a company relies upon becomes degraded. This can range from reduced agricultural yields because of a lack of pollinators, to more expensive raw materials for manufacturers, or increased business costs due to storm damage.
  • In future campaign groups and regulators are likely to push harder for businesses to include ecosystems in their accounting practices, thereby changing investment decisions. Emerging approaches for tackling this issue include the use of various methods for valuing ecosystem services.
  • Governments, NGOs, businesses and societies around the world are also paying more attention to ecosystem services, and working on the systemic restoration of degraded environments.

Contribute / add your thoughts here

The debate is moving on rapidly, such that we need to reframe the arguments in terms of natural capital. Traditional approaches to nature conservation may see some battles won, but we are losing the war: biodiversity continues to be in decline. Opportunities exist for truly sustainable development to achieve net gains for natural capital, either on- or off-site. The conservation sector needs to work ever more closely with the infrastructure/construction sector
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