‘Fairly catastrophic’: UN warns of twin perils facing the planet

·3-min read

Time is ticking for governments around the world to take meaningful action on two major issues facing the planet, global scientists warn.

A joint report by separate UN scientific bodies has urged leaders to follow through on tackling a pair of pressing problems: climate change and dwindling biodiversity.

They remain optimistic about the potential to simultaneously address the twin threats, but warn some fixes to warming could accelerate extinctions of plants and animals.

It's a catch-22 situation researchers and environmentalists are increasingly navigating. 

A kangaroo hops across grass in Australia. The UN has urged leaders to follow through on tackling a pair of pressing problems: climate change and dwindling biodiversity.
Australia will endure some of the worst effects of climate change, scientists warn. Source: Getty Images

For example, measures such as expansion of bioenergy crops like corn, or efforts to pull carbon dioxide from the air and bury it, could use so much land – twice the size of India - that the impact would be "fairly catastrophic on biodiversity", co-author and biologist Almut Arneth, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, said.

Policy responses to climate change and biodiversity loss have long been siloed, with different government agencies responsible for each, co-author Pamela McElwee, a human ecologist at Rutgers University, added.

Shift to a more holistic approach 

Like much of Earth's planetary systems, the problems are intertwined, worsen each other, and in the end hurt people, researchers wrote. 

"Climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening human well-being as well as society," report co-chair Hans-Otto Portner, a German biologist who helps oversee the impacts group of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said.

Earth's naturally changing climate shaped what life developed, including humans, but once people in the industrialised world started pumping fossil fuels into the air, that triggered cascading problems, Dr Portner said.

A snail rides on the back of a turtle.
Species are losing habitat and number with worrying pace in some parts of the globe. Source: Getty Images

"It's high time to fix what we got wrong. The climate system is off-track and the biodiversity is suffering."

While some climate solutions can increase species loss, scientists said efforts to curb extinctions don't really harm the climate.

IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) chair Ana Maria Hernandez Salgar stressed solutions such as nature preservation or restoration would only work in countering climate change and biodiversity loss if they were accompanied by sweeping cuts in man-made emissions.

"Transformative change in all parts of society and our economy is needed to stabilise our climate, stop biodiversity loss and chart a path to the sustainable future we want," she said.

"This will require us to address both crises together, in complementary ways."

While industrialisation has seen climate-affecting carbon emissions steadily rise, it has also resulted in an explosion of harmful chemicals affecting the natural world.

Prof Barbara Demeneix, a biologist and endocrinologist, and author of Toxic Cocktail: How Chemical Pollution Is Poisoning Our Brains, warns the growth of environmental contaminants will impact future generations.

"Chemical pollution has now reached unprecedented levels, with every child born today 'pre-contaminated' with hundreds of chemicals," she recently wrote in the Financial Times.

Aside from climate change, she describes growing chemical pollution and the loss of biodiversity as the "asteroid threats" facing the planet.

with AP

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