Conserving and restoring ecosystems altered by human development could help protect species from the threat of extinction, according to a landmark UN biodiversity report.
The report, a summary of which was issued in Paris on Monday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that human development has transformed the earth’s natural landscapes, displacing or destroying countless species in the process.
“Things are changing so quickly, and so negatively, in many cases. Things like deforestation in tropical forests, especially in some parts of the world, is going at a speed that if we don’t stop in the next decade, they would have destroyed really critical areas of tropical forest,” Paul Leadley, an ecology professor and one of the report’s lead authors, told FRANCE 24.
Greater conservation and restoration of ecosystems would not only limit the threat to biodiversity, but it would also help fight against climate collapse by extracting carbon from the environment.
“The most important thing is to not destroy natural habitats to begin with,” Jean-David Abel, vice president of the organisation France Nature Environnement, told FRANCE 24. “We must also replant and give these spaces back to the species that once lived there.”
Habitat conservation and restoration are far from new practices. Yet they have drawn greater attention in recent years as the scale of the threat to the planet has come into sharper relief.
“There are numerous examples of old factories and mines that have been restored and are now home to a rich diversity of species,” Abel said. “We have the experience needed to restore ecosystems, but it’s done in very few places.”
A number of projects to restore landscapes impacted by human development – including infrastructure, agricultural production, fishing, and the introduction of invasive species – have seen the return of local wildlife previously believed to be lost.
In California, experts recently reported that several species of insects, animals and plants had reappeared in San Francisco following the restoration of dunes and grasses at a former military base there.
“Habitat restoration allows for animals and vegetation to find a new home. It also creates a continuity in nature that allows for species to become more resilient,” Abel said.
Yet the practice also has its limits. Up until now, it has largely been carried out on a small scale.
“The main constraints of habitat restoration is doing it in isolation. It’s not very effective if you don’t think about the thread of biodiversity,” Abel said. “If you restore an isolated area, it will not be sustainable in the long term.”
“We can’t have ad-hoc approach. It needs to be systemic,” he added.
The UN report, which was compiled by more than 450 experts based on 15,000 scientific studies, estimated that three-quarters of Earth’s land surface and two-thirds of its oceans have been affected by human development.
The consequences have been devastating for plant and animal life, with more than a million species threatened with extinction.