Deadly combination of damage to land, soil, air, water and animal populations alongside climate change is creating catastrophic global risk, says IPPR report
The world faces a growing risk of a “perfect storm” of runaway changes caused by widespread environmental breakdown, according to a ground-breaking report by the IPPR think tank.
Climate change is just one of a range of global environmental threats which could combine to create unprecedented crises and threaten the stability of societies, the report says. Natural systems are now being destabilised so quickly that dangerous “tipping points” may soon be reached, with consequences that may be extreme.
Not only does the world need to act urgently to prevent some of the worst possibilities being realised, but countries including the UK need to begin planning for the impacts of changes that are already set to occur.
The UK exceeds its share per head of five out of seven “sustainability boundaries”, according to analysis cited in the report, suggesting that significant action is needed for the country to contribute to the realisation of “sustainable and just” global outcomes.
Among issues facing Britain, as well as the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the report lists:
- The average population sizes of the most threatened species in the UK have decreased by two-thirds since 1970.
- The UK is described as one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world”.
- 2 million tonnes of UK topsoil is eroded annually, and over 17 per cent of arable land shows signs of erosion.
- Nearly 85 per cent of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has been lost since 1850, with the remainder at risk of being lost over the next 30–60 years.
The report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, is the first to bring together growing understanding of the multiple environmental threats humanity faces, and to ask what this means for people, governments and policy-makers worldwide.
It argues that human impact on the environment is now so great that it risks generating significant economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and even the collapse of social and economic systems.
It identifies a range of natural systems already damaged or under threat from the impact of rapidly accelerating human activity:
- Climate change: It is already too late to prevent temperatures rising over the next decades. Rising sea levels and increasing extremes of weather are among the impacts which threaten major economic, social and political disruption.
- Biodiversity: Up to 58,000 species of animals and plants are being lost each year, while vertebrate populations have fallen by an average of 60 per cent since 1970.
- Ocean acidification: Acidity due to carbon-dioxide absorption is increasing at an accelerating rate this century, damaging marine life.
- Land use: Deforestation continues apace; soil erosion and other degradation now affects 75 per cent of land, causing lower crop yields; and topsoil is being lost up to 40 times faster than it is replenished.
- Biogeochemical flows: Run-off of phosphorus and nitrogen used in farming into water systems is leading to over-abundance of plants and algae, creating low-oxygen “dead zones” unfit for other marine life.
- Ozone layer: The hole in the protective ozone layer over the Antarctic is shrinking since a ban on CFC chemicals that damage it, “a rare example” of damage to a natural system being reversed.
- Pollution and new substances: Vehicle and industrial emissions, smoke and dust from farming and pesticides, radioactive materials and other pollutants increase climate change and also damage human health – as well as plastic waste now found everywhere in the world.
The report says that three shifts in understanding across political and policy communities are needed: of the scale and pace of environmental breakdown, the implications for societies, and the need for transformative change. It highlights the fact that poorer countries are most likely to experience the consequences of environmental breakdown, yet are less able to prepare for or respond to them.
It says the failure to adequately tackle the challenge reflects difficulties faced by decision makers in understanding and responding to complex, system-wide problems. Other factors that impede progress include the power of vested interests and the difficulty of rapidly changing the current economic system.
Lesley Rankin, IPPR researcher, said:
“This is a crisis particularly for millennial and younger generations – the leaders of tomorrow. They face the daunting twin tasks of preventing environmental breakdown while responding to its growing negative effects and the failure to stop the damage sooner.
“The report finds some signs that action to prevent catastrophe is possible, including the healing ozone layer and the accelerating roll-out of clean technologies. We need to move from these isolated successes to a transformation to make our societies and economies sustainable, just and prepared.”
Laurie Laybourn-Langton, IPPR Associate Fellow and lead author of the report, said:
“Our research shows how urgent it is that we understand and address a much wider range of environmental issues than climate change alone. Overall, the environment is breaking down, with consequences which include more drought, famine, forced migration and war. Environmental breakdown poses a catastrophic risk. This is a crisis.
“Our task now is to find ways to reduce this risk while building a fairer world. In the case of climate breakdown, the poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for only 10 per cent of global emissions. So it’s essential for humanity’s survival that urgent efforts to stem environmental breakdown are combined with a drive for greater global justice.”