By Dr Himmat Singh
3. Species Extinction
Problem: On land, wild animals are being hunted
to extinction for bush meat, ivory, or “medicinal” products. At sea, huge industrial fishing boats equipped with bottom-trawling or purse-seine nets clean out entire fish populations. The loss and destruction of habitat are also major factors contributing to a wave of extinction – unprecedented in that it is caused by a single species: humans. The IUCN’s Red List of threatened and endangered species continues to grow.
Not only do species inherently deserve to exist, they also provide products and “services” essential to human survival. Think bees and their pollinating prowess – necessary for growing food.
Solutions: Concerted efforts need to be made to prevent further loss of biodiversity. Protecting and restoring habitats is one side of this – protecting against poaching and wildlife trade is another. This should be done in partnership with locals, so that wildlife conservation is in their social and economic interest.
100 times faster
The American black bear is one of more than 22,000 species threatened with extinction. During the past century, animals have been disappearing about 100 times faster than they used to, scientists from different American universities warned in a new study. According to the WWF, around 70 species go extinct every day.
In the red
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature – which publishes a “red list” of threatened and endangered species – 41 percent of amphibian species and 26 percent of mammals are facing extinction. The Titicaca water frog, found only in Lake Titicaca in South America, used to be present in the millions in the early 1970s. By now, they have disappeared almost completely.
Pollution, deforestation, climate change
The causes of species loss are mostly manmade. They range from climate change, to pollution, to deforestation and beyond. About 2,000 trees have been cut down every minute during the past 40 years, according to a different study.
Fossils as reference
The study is based on documented extinctions of vertebrates – or animals with internal skeletons – from fossil records and other historical data. These results are estimations, since humans don’t know exactly what happened throughout the course of Earth’s history. In earlier extinction events, such as the Ice Age, only two out of 10,000 mammals died out per century – such as the primordial horse.
As species disappear, so do crucial services, such as pollination of crops by honeybees. At the current rate of species loss, humans will lose innumerable biodiversity benefits within three generations, the study’s authors write. “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on,” wrote author Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University.
Humankind at risk
If the current rate of extinction is allowed to continue, “life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” wrote lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico.
4. Soil Degradation.
Problem:- Overexposure to pollutants, land-use conversion – there’s a long list of ways that soils are being damaged. About 12 million hectares of farmland a year get seriously degraded, according to UN estimates.
Solutions: A wide range of soil conservation and restoration techniques exist, from no-till agriculture to crop rotation to water-retention through terrace-building. Given that food security depends on keeping soils in good condition, we’re likely to master this challenge in the long run. Whether this will be done in a way equitable to all people around the globe, remains an open question.
The number of organisms living in a handful of soil outnumber all humans on the planet. They ensure that the humus layer stores nutrients and water. After oceans, soils represent the planet’s largest carbon bank. Soils store more carbon than all the world’s forests combined.
As cities around the world expand, fertile land is disappearing under concrete and asphalt. Microorganisms are suffocated under this artificial surface, and above it rainwater flows away rather than seeping into the soil.
Like human skin, the Earth’s sensitive surface needs protection from the sun, wind and cold. Large areas can dry out, and ploughing can dislodge the top layer so that it is blown away by the wind.
Depletion of the soil through deforestation, over-fertilisation and overgrazing can turn land into desert. Climatic factors like drought become a catalyst in a chain reaction – that is set in motion by human activity.
Monoculture plantations need large amounts of fertiliser and pesticides to remain productive. Some types of pesticides also harm the natural soil biota, reducing the soil’s fertility.
Whether resulting from industrial leakage, disaster or weapons, or from years of over-fertilisation: once soil is contaminated, fixing the damage is costly and time-consuming. According to official sources in China, nearly one-fifth of agricultural land there is contaminated.
The earth is also dug up to get to raw materials. Brown coal mining strips away the topsoil. Through resource extraction, land that could provide wildlife habitat, or be used for agriculture or human habitation, is lost.
It takes 2,000 years for nature to produce a 10-centimeter (4-inch) layer of fertile soil that holds water and nutrients, and where plants can grow. To protect fertile soils worldwide, the United Nations had declared 2015 International Year of Soils.
Problem: Human population continues to grow rapidly worldwide. Humanity entered the 20th century with 1.6 billion people; right now, we’re about 7.5 billion. Estimates put us at nearly 10 billion by 2050. Growing global populations, combined with growing affluence, is putting ever greater pressure on essential natural resources, like water. Most of the growth is happening on the African continent, and in southern and eastern Asia.
Solutions: Experience has shown that when women are empowered to control their own reproduction, and gain access to education and basic social services, the average number of births per woman drops precipitously. Done right, networked aid systems could bring women out of extreme poverty, even in countries where state-level governance remains abysmal.
Remember when we used just one earth?
What about the green lung?
The Amazon is one of the most precious and impressive rainforests on Earth. It’s described as the world’s green lung because it sucks up so much carbon dioxide. But mankind uses lots of wood and the lung is shrinking. Its area fell from 4,100,000 square Kms in 1970 to 3,300,000 square kms in 2016. In other words, 81 percent of 1970’s forest cover still remains.
Many more of us
In 1970, 3.7 billion people lived on the planet. Our numbers today exceed 7.5 billion. China and India top the global population list, with 1.4 billion and 1.33 billion inhabitants, respectively.
Where do you live?
About 64 percent of the world’s population were rural dwellers in 1970. That’s changed drastically. In 2016, the proportion had dropped to 45 percent.
We are becoming city people instead. The number of us living in urban areas rose from 1.34 billion in 1970 to 4 billion in 2016. According to the latest estimates, the majority of us are living in urban areas even in less developed countries
What’s your ride?
People love cars, right? But do you know how many there are today? The exact figure is hard to come by but estimations draw a relatively a clear picture. In 1970, 250 million cars were on the road worldwide. That number shot up to 1 billion in 2010 and will have skyrocketed to 2 billion by 2020. The figures include cars, all kinds of trucks as well as buses.
Like taking a bus
In 1970, the first Boeing 747 began its passenger service, flying 324 passengers from New York to London. Those 324 people were among the 310 million passengers who flew that year. Around 3.7 billion people took to the skies in 2016.
Keep it in the ground?
Do you ever think about oil? Well, there’s still plenty in the ground and we should keep it there if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. But we actually put a lot of effort into getting the black gold out instead. Crude oil production has nearly doubled from 48,000 barrels a day in 1970 to 92,000 barrels in 2016.
Up in the air
Whatever we do, we create carbon emissions. And – rather unsurprisingly – we create a lot. Back in 1970, the world’s population exhaled about 14.4 billion tons of CO2. In 2015, we breathed out about 35 billion tons.
(This write-up is based on the article of Nils Zimmermann of DW that appeared in late 2016.)