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Biodiversity loss impacts human health


“Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (terrestrial or marine) with irreversible consequences for the environment, resulting in severely depleted resources for humankind as well as industries,” a statement released by the World Economic Forum stated as it identified biodiversity loss as one of the leading five global risks in terms of likelihood and impact in its 2020 Global Risks Report. The report revealed the top five global risks in terms of likelihood are all environment-related.

Biodiversity is the essential variety of life forms on Earth, the diversity within species, between species and within ecosystems.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report — compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years and based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources released in 2019 — revealed nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rate of species extinctions — a million species is threatened with extinction — is accelerating, endangering economies, livelihoods, food security and the quality of life of people everywhere.

Human activities such as harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing had impacted both the abundance and diversity of animals and plants — 82-percent decline in global biomass of wild mammals; 47-percent decline of natural ecosystems; 25 percent of plant and animal species threatened with extinction; and 23-percent decline in abundance of naturally present land species.

Agricultural and industrial expansion has led to the loss of over 85 percent wetlands, altered 75 percent of land surface, and impacted 66 percent of ocean area.

Meat and dairy production uses 83 percent of farmland, 33 percent of freshwater withdrawals, and accounts for 58 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions but provides only 18 percent of food calories and 35 percent of protein. The industry produces 57 percent of water pollution and 56 percent of air pollution.

Land use change through deforestation is the leading driver of new disease emergence in humans. Deforestation for logging, agricultural expansion and mining, a leading driver of climate change, is often a major driver of infectious disease outbreaks.

The study titled “Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health,” a joint review of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched in 2015, reported how biodiversity loss can destabilize ecosystems, promote outbreaks of infectious disease, and undermine development progress, nutrition, security and protection from natural disasters. It driven by population growth, trade, consumption patterns and urbanization.

Peter Daszak, who is preparing the next IPBES assessment, in his interview with the London-based The Guardian, said rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species, have created a “perfect storm” for the spillover of diseases.

The more destructive activities humans caused to their natural habitats make these wild species closer to humans pushing for the likelihood of more potential pandemics.

IPBES, an independent group of international researchers monitoring biodiversity issues, have warned that 1.7 million unidentified viruses known to infect people are estimated to exist in mammals and water birds and any one of these may be more disruptive and lethal than the coronavirus disease 2019.

Other global environmental challenges and health

Other environmental challenges were part of the major concerns of the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity penned by the Union of Concerned Scientists include:

Stratospheric ozone depletion

Human-produced chemicals known as ozone-depleting substances, mainly chlorofluorocarbons, were rapidly depleting the ozone layer.

Reduced ozone levels as a result of ozone depletion mean less protection from the sun’s rays and more exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVB). UVB is a kind of ultraviolet light from the sun that has several harmful effects. Epidemiological studies demonstrate that UVB causes skin cancer and has been linked to the development of cataracts. It has also been linked to damage to some materials, crops and marine organisms.

Global ozone depletion is no longer increasing, and significant recovery of the ozone layer is expected to occur.

Freshwater depletion

Freshwater availability is less than half of levels of the early 1960s with many people around the world suffering from a lack of fresh clean water. This decrease in available water is nearly all due to the accelerated pace of human population growth. It is likely that climate change will have an overwhelming impact on the freshwater availability through alteration of the hydrologic cycle and water availability. Future water shortages will be detrimental to humans, affecting everything from drinking water, human health, sanitation and the production of crops for food.

This article is part of the occasional paper titled “The Interconnectedness of Health, Climate Change, and Society” written by the author and published by Stratbase ADR Institute.

The author is the executive director of the Young Environmental Forum and a non-resident fellow of Stratbase ADR Institute. He completed his climate change and development course at the University of East Anglia (United Kingdom) and executive program on sustainability leadership at Yale University (USA). He can be reached at ludwig.federigan@gmail.com.


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