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Biodiversity falls below safe levels globally

18 July 2016

Levels of biodiversity loss may have a negative impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies according to a study published in Science (15 July 2016) and led by researchers from UNEP-WCMC, University College London (UCL) and the Natural History Museum, London. The collaborative team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe captured in the PREDICTS project, which shows how biological communities change as a result of human activity.

Researchers at UNEP-WCMC calculated how biodiversity in every square kilometre of land has changed since before humans modified the habitat - the first time this has been achieved in such detail. The results suggests that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists.

Lead researcher Dr Tim Newbold, formerly of UNEP-WCMC, said: “This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries – an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

Dr Samantha Hill, co-author of the study from UNEP-WCMC said: “This study provides further evidence of the dramatic impact that humans have had on natural systems and highlights the necessity of both preserving and restoring habitat for ecosystem and human wellbeing.” This study suggests that biodiversity hotspots – those with a lot of species only found in that area despite previous habitat loss– are threatened, showing high levels of biodiversity decline. Other high biodiversity areas, such as Amazonia, which have seen less land use change have higher levels of biodiversity and more scope for proactive conservation.

Andy Arnell, co-author of the study from UNEP-WCMC, said: “This gives a much clearer picture of the impact land use has had on biodiversity. I am glad to have been part of such important work. I think the PREDICTS project and other modelling work UNEP-WCMC has been involved with, such as the Madingley project, are great examples of the benefits of institutional collaboration.” The team have made the maps from this paper and all of the underlying data publicly available so that it can be used to inform conservation policy, nationally and internationally.

For a copy of the paper or to speak to the researchers involved contact Dr Rebecca Caygill, UCL press office. T: +44 (0)20 3108 3846 / +44 (0)7733 307 596, E: r.caygill@ucl.ac.uk