Highlights from the 2018 Living Planet Report

“Guns, nets, and bulldozers: the threats of old are still the dominant drivers of current species loss.”

– Maxwell et al. 2016

Now that the semester is winding down, I’ve finally had the chance to read the 2018 Living Planet Report that was released a few weeks ago. As you may have heard, the report got a lot of attention for its dramatic finding on biodiversity loss—that wildlife populations have declined by an average of 60 percent since 1970.

The major threats facing taxonomic groups.

Since 1998, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report has been released every two years as a science-based assessment of the health of our planet. It contains contributions from more than 50 experts in academia, policy, international development and conservation organizations. The report outlines the rapid planetary change that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution, referred to as the “Great Acceleration.” With the drastic increase in world population, transportation, global water use and many other indicators come the associated increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, ocean acidification levels, tropical forest loss, domesticated land and overall biodiversity loss—a story we have heard many times before.

Though there is much in this report that is worthy of discussion, I would like to highlight the Living Planet Index (LPI), which is an indicator of the state of global biodiversity and the health of our planet. This year’s global index—calculated for 16,700 populations of over 4,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians—shows a 60% decline in the population sizes of vertebrates between 1970 and 2014. Though the loss represents the average change in population abundance—not the loss in species or total animal numbers, as many headlines stated—it is still a stark number that represents a drastic loss of biodiversity in a very, very short period of time.

The Living Planet Report states that biodiversity is often referred to as the ‘infrastructure’ that supports all life on Earth—that is why its steady decline is so alarming. This loss in wildlife is not just the loss of your favorite animal—it is a reflection of the loss of habitat, which represents a loss in the natural systems and biochemical cycles that run our atmosphere, oceans, forests, landscapes and waterways.

This year’s report feels particularly alarming, as it repeatedly cites 2020 as the pivotal year by which we must move beyond “business as usual” if we are to reverse this drastic decline of natural systems. If no changes are made in our collective behavior, then there will be serious consequences for both nature and people. Despite decades of international agreements to stop this decline in biodiversity(e.g., Convention on Biological Diversity, COP6, Aichi Targets), these targets have generally not been met. Sights are now set for 2050, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) vision, which states, “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored, and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.” The Living Planet Report does not take this at face value, however, recognizing that broad visions do not automatically equate to measurable actions and goals. They recommend three necessary steps in a roadmap for action for 2020-2050: 1) translate the aspirational vision to an ambitious goal; 2) identify ways to measure progress towards the goal; and 3) identify actions to deliver the required transformation in global biodiversity.

Of course, this is not easy, but the authors of this report are more serious than they likely have ever been. They are calling on leaders and decision-makers for a drastic change, for the most ambitious international agreement yet, for a “new global deal for nature and people.” For everyone’s sake, I certainly hope they listen.

The Living Planet Index, which demonstrates the 60% decline in wildlife populations since 1970.

Source: WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.