Climate change is a major factor in reducing the variety of life on earth. With more species of plants and animals under threat than ever before, action is needed to stop the loss of nature and to help eco-systems adapt to climate change.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more,” wrote the American author John Burroughs, who was one of the first people to make conscious efforts to protect nature in the early part of the last century. Many people continue to enjoy its relaxing and spiritual benefits, but nature plays a much more important role. It provides the fundamental elements that we need to live – our sources of food, drinkable water, breathable air, fibres and fuel.
Yet across the world, ‘biodiversity’ – the name given to the number and variety of animals and plants in a given area – is being lost faster than ever before. According to the most recent estimates, two-thirds of natural eco-systems are in decline. The World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) annual ‘Red list’ of animals and plants under threat recently showed the highest ever number of species facing extinction.
These changes have grave implications for economies, security and health. In Europe we are seeing the signs of collapsing fish stocks, damage to soil, flood damage, and disappearing wildlife. In other parts of the world, the losses are happening even more quickly, with vast areas of tropical rainforests, for example, disappearing every year.
Climate change is, of course, not the only cause. The expansion of cities, deforestation, industrial farming practices and the over-exploitation of natural resources are all playing a part. However, the gradual warming of our climate that has taken place in the last century is already having an impact on natural systems and this is set to get more dramatic in the future. Temperature rises and changes in rainfall patterns and weather systems are affecting where animals and plants live and grow.
“We are seeing startling changes in growing seasons," says Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. "Many species are already on the move, expanding northwards as temperatures rise.”
Europe's most sensitive natural ecosystems are to be found in mountain regions, coastal zones, the Arctic and various parts of the Mediterranean. Animals and plants are likely to have particular difficulty in adapting to climate change in all of these areas.
Conservation action is important as biodiversity loss adds to the effects of climate change. The more degraded eco-systems become, the less able the planet’s natural defence systems are to cope with the impact of rising temperatures and more extreme weather. One example of this was Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southeast of the United States in 2004 and was one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the country. The loss of coastal marshlands that used to buffer New Orleans from flooding and storm surges worsened the impact of the storm in the city.
Forests, oceans and other natural areas also play an important role in slowing global warming as they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), the main gas responsible for climate change, from the atmosphere. The loss of large areas of tropical rainforests and the worsening health of many oceans mean that this natural function is being disrupted, and that this in turn is accelerating the rate of global warming.
Many people have realised that preserving natural systems is important and most governments from around the world are parties to the 2002 UN Convention on Biological Diversity that commits them to significantly slowing the loss of biodiversity by 2010. Member States of the European Union went further and agreed in 2001 to halt biodiversity loss by the same year. However, further efforts will be needed on all levels to achieve these targets in sectors such as agriculture, regional development, energy, transport and trade.
In the EU, the main action to protect biodiversity is the creation of the Natura 2000 network, a joined-up network of conservation areas. The links between these areas must be strengthened, and future actions will need to plan for the effects of climate change on natural habitats. Appropriate management of the wider landscape, in ways that allow for the movement and dispersal of species, will be essential to complement the network.
Species threatened – 42% of Europe's native mammals, 43% of birds, 45% of butterflies, 30% of amphibians, 45% of reptiles and 52% of freshwater fish are facing extinction. Some 800 types of plants in Europe are at also a risk.
Land quality dropping – since the 1950s, Europe has lost more than half of its wetlands and most high-nature-value farmland.
Less pristine land – only 1-3% of Western Europe's forests can be classed as "undisturbed by humans".
Barren seas – most major fish stocks are below safe biological limits.
Large-scale destruction – since the late 1970s, an area of tropical rain forest larger than the EU has been destroyed. An area equivalent to the size of France is destroyed every 3-4 years.
Rising losses – extinction rates are now around 100 times greater than those shown in fossil records and are projected to accelerate further. Globally, an estimated 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species face extinction. Of the species that have been assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70% of plants are in danger.
Source: The United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) and the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List
For more information:
The European Commission’s biodiversity and climate change pages (links to the latest issue of the Natura 2000 Newsletter dedicated to biodiversity and climate change)