Human activities are driving nature loss, sometimes in multiple ways. Commercial fishing, for instance, can reduce biodiversity through trawling the seabed (habitat change), which releases CO2 (climate change); by-catch may include at-risk species (overexploitation); discarded fishing gear can trap marine animals (pollution); and boats going further afield can transport species between ecosystems (invasive alien species).

10 min read | Last updated 22 March 2021

Human activity is driving nature loss, measured as a decline in biodiversity. There has been a great acceleration in human activity since 1970, attributable to two factors: the global population has doubled since 1970 from 3.7 billion to 7.7 billion, and average per capita consumption has increased by 15% since 1980. The result is fourfold growth in global GDP since 1970. This surge in demand for material goods over the last 50 years has been met through a linear take-make-dispose, cost-focused, fossil-fueled economy that has driven extraordinary nature losses.

The five human drivers of nature loss are:

  1. Habitat change
    • through agriculture, forestry and infrastructure
  2. Overexploitation
    • through mining, harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing
  3. Climate change
    • through emissions
  4. Pollution
    • through water pollution, plastic pollution and nutrient pollution
  5. Invasive alien species
    • through trade and mobility

The three nature losses are:

  1. Species abundance
  2. Ecosystem functions
  3. Ecosystem services.

The data below reference IPBES, 2019 (pdf), unless otherwise stated.

1 Habitat change has created the largest relative negative impact on nature over the last 50 years. Of Earth’s non-ice land surface, 75% has been altered through deforestation, dredging and draining to provide for agriculture, forestry and urbanisation. A mere 3% of the ocean is free from human influence as a result of coastal development, offshore aquaculture, mari-culture, bottom trawling, coastal urban sprawl, pollution of rivers and ocean mining for oil and gas.

Human Drivers

  • Agriculture
    • To satisfy food, feed and bioenergy needs, one third of all land and three quarters of all freshwater is devoted to crop or livestock production; crop production is 200% greater now than in 1970 and uses up 70% of drylands
    • OECD nations provided $100 billion of agricultural support through economic instruments favouring unsustainable production, leading to deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl and wasteful uses of water
    • Agriculture is the proximate driver for 80% of forest loss (Kissinger and Herold 2012); 100 million hectares of tropical forest was lost from 1980 to 2000, mostly due to cattle ranching in Latin America and oil palm plantations in South-East Asia
  • Forestry
    • Raw timber harvests have increased by 45% since 1970
    • 2.5 million acres of land is converted to fast-wood forests each year (WWF)
  • Infrastructure
    • Urban areas have doubled since 1992
    • Paved roads are projected to increase by 25 million kilometres by 2050, of which 90% will be in least developed and developing nations
    • There are 50,000 large dams (higher than 15 metres) and 17 million reservoirs
    • Ocean mining includes 6,500 offshore oil and gas installations in 53 countries

Nature Losses

  • Species Abundance
    • There has been a 40% population decline in terrestrial vertebrate species, 84% in freshwater vertebrate species and 35% in marine vertebrate species since 1970; vertebrate extinction rates are 10 to 100s of times higher than the 10 million year average
    • 25% of assessed plant and animal species are threatened; 9% of terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long term survival; 1 million plant and animal species face extinction within decades
    • Average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20% since 1900
    • 10% of domesticated mammal breeds and 3.5% of domesticated bird breeds are extinct; conservation status of wild relatives of domesticated species has deteriorated, depleting the global food system’s gene pool of resilience traits
    • Global standard food supply has increased species homogeneity worldwide; between 50 and 90% of locally adapted varieties of major crop species have been replaced by high-yield varieties (Folke et al, 2020)
  • Ecosystem Functions
    • Extent and condition of ecosystems has fallen 47% from natural baselines and are declining 4% per decade; 87% of wetlands and 32% of forest area have been lost since preindustrial times; seagrass meadows are decreasing 10% per decade
    • Terrestrial and marine ecosystems serve as important sinks for carbon dioxide – carbon stored in soil (~2400 Gt) is 4.5 times that stored in the atmosphere and 5 times that stored in plants and animals; the ocean holds 38,000 Gt of carbon – Land and sea use change can release some of this (Folke et al, 2020)
  • Ecosystem Services
    • Land productivity is threatened by loss of soil organic carbon in 23% of global terrestrial area
    • The 75% of crops that rely on animal pollination are under threat by pollinator decline
    • Insects, weeds and pathogens are evolving resistance to insecticides, herbicides and other control agents
    • Coastal flooding must increasingly be provided through expensive human-engineered dykes and sea walls rather than coastal mangroves; engineered solutions fail to provide synergistic benefits

2 Overexploitation has caused the largest relative negative impact on marine ecosystems over the last 50 years. Exploitation is the extraction of natural resources through mining, harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing. Extraction of renewable and non renewable resources (plants, animals, fossil fuels, ores and construction material) has doubled since 1980 to 60 billion tonnes per annum. Overexploitation is extraction that is unsustainable. This is often, but not always, illegal.

Human Drivers

  • Mining
    • Mined products contribute more than 60% of GDP in 81 countries, with 17,000 large-scale mining sites in 171 countries
  • Harvesting
    • There were 180,000 seizures of trafficked wild flora and fauna in 149 countries in 2019 (UNODC, 2020 (pdf))
    • More than 365 protected plant species are openly traded on Amazon and EBay, including cycads, cacti and orchids (IUCN)
  • Logging
    • Illegal logging accounts for 8-10% of global production and 40-50% of all logging in some of the world’s most valuable and threatened forests (WWF); 50% to 90% of timber is harvested and traded illegally; 35% of all illegal trade is rosewood (World Bank, 2019)
  • Hunting
    • Only 4% of the world’s mammals are wild species; in the US alone, more than 100 million animals are reported killed by hunters each year, and 1.5 million native animals were killed by the Department of Agriculture (Center for Biological Diversity, 2019)
  • Fishing
    • Per capita global fish consumption has doubled since the 1960s; total fish harvest from freshwater and marine domains was 96.4 million tonnes in 2018 (FAO, 2020)
    • Industrial fishing now covers 55% of oceans due to geographic expansion to sustain catch volumes
    • Aquaculture now supplies more than half of the world’s fish for human consumption (Cai and Zhou, 2019)

Nature Losses

  • Species Abundance
    • The proportion of marine fish stocks considered to be overfished increased from 10% to 33% between 1970 and 2017; 11% of total global fish harvest is from overfished stock (FAO, 2020)
    • Large vertebrates are most threatened by direct killing by humans (Ripple et al 2017); an elephant is poached for its tusks about every 30 minutes, an African rhino for its horn every 8 hours (World Bank,2019); a pangolin is taken every 5 minutes (Heinrich et al, 2016)
    • More tigers are being kept as pets in the US than exist in the wild (Born Free USA)
  • Ecosystem Functions
    • Large species are disappearing fastest, including great apes, tropical hardwood trees, sharks and big cats, which are often apex predators and keystone species (see below), dramatically affecting the structure, fire regimes, seed dispersal, land surface albedo and nutrient availability within many ecosystems
    • Between 1990 and 2015, logging, clearing and wood harvest led to a loss of 290 million hectares of native forest cover
  • Ecosystem Services
    • The annual cost of lost ecosystem services due to illegal logging, fishing and wildlife trade is estimated at $1 trillion or more (World Bank, 2019)

3 Climate change is affecting millions of species, impacting the ecosystems that function through those species’ traits and, thus, the services those ecosystems provide. These are humanity’s greatest source of resilience to climate change and they underpin the entire global food system.

Human Drivers

  • Emissions
    • GHG emissions have risen 100% since 1980; 25% of global GHG emissions come from agriculture, of which 75% is from animal-based foods; tourism carbon footprint rose 40% between 2009 and 2013; 2 billion people rely on burning wood for cooking and heating
    • 70% of global CO2 emissions come from cities
    • The top three emitters (China, the EU and the US) account for more than 40% of global GHG emissions, while the bottom 100 countries account for only 3.5% (WRI, 2020)
    • Marine sediments are Earth’s largest pool of carbon storage – seabed trawling emits as much CO2 as the aviation industry (The Guardian, 2021).

Nature Losses

  • Species
    • Due to ocean warming, live coral cover on coral reefs has halved since the 1870s
    • Global warming of 2C is projected to lead to additional extinctions of 5% of global species, loss of 99% of coral reefs and a reduction in fish biomass of 3%
    • Global warming of 4.3C risks 16% of global species and 25% of fish biomass
    • Shifts in species distribution; large reductions in abundance and local extinctions are widespread indicating that many species are unable to cope with the pace of climate change and their survival depends on ability to disperse and evolve
  • Ecosystem Functions
    • Sea water is 26% more acidic than at the start of the industrial era (Folke et al, 2020), affecting in particular shallow waters and ecosystems of the subarctic Pacific and western Arctic Ocean
    • Climate-related changes are affecting marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems’ structure and function and these changes are accelerating
    • The risk for wild fires in Australia has increased by at least 30% since 1900
  • Ecosystem Services
    • Climate change-related ecosystem changes are impacting agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries

4 Pollution overwhelms species and ecosystems, reducing their ability to regulate climate, air, soil and water quality. Sources include untreated waste, industrial, mining and agricultural pollutants, oil spills and toxic dumping.

Human Drivers

  • Water Pollution
    • Over 80% of global wastewater is discharged without treatment
    • 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped into waterways each year
  • Plastic Pollution
    • Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980
  • Nutrient Pollution
    • 70% of sewage in India enters waterbodies untreated
    • Global use of nitrogen fertiliser increased from 45 million tonnes to 113 million tonnes over 50 years, 1964-2104 (Our World in Data, 2015)

Nature Losses

  • Species
    • Marine plastic pollution is affecting 86% of marine turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals
  • Ecosystem Functions
    • There are 400 hypoxic (dead) zones with a total area of 245,000 km2
    • Ocean and air dynamics are transporting plastics, organic pollutants, heavy metals and ocean acidification worldwide
  • Ecosystem Services
    • Coastal waters hold the highest levels of metals and persistent organic pollutants from industrial discharge and agricultural run-off, poisoning coastal fish harvests

5 Invasive alien species are plants, animals or pathogens that are introduced (intentionally or unintentionally) and become established in a new environment, then spread in ways that are destructive to human interests and natural systems.

Human Drivers

  • Trade
    • Alien species have increased by 40 per cent since 1980 due to trade and population dynamics
  • Mobility
    • The rate of introduction of invasive alien species is increasing with human mobility

Nature Losses

  • Species
    • In island nations, introduced species are a key driver of extinctions
    • A single invasive pathogen species is a threat to nearly 400 amphibian species worldwide, causing several extinctions to date
  • Ecosystem Functions
    • One fifth of Earth is at risk of plant and animal invasion; the greatest impacts are felt in areas of high endemism, ie where local species are not found elsewhere
    • The likelihood of ecosystem regime shift (a drastic shift to a contrasting state) is higher where biodiversity has been reduced due to a reduction in the response diversity of ecosystem species, which is, in effect, a reduction in ecosystem resilience
  • Ecosystem Services
    • Invading alga, mollusks, crustaceans and fish threaten coasts and oceans, impacting fisheries, water purification, waste treatment, disease regulation and recreation
    • Invading insects, pathogens, grasses, forbs (understorey herbs) and birds threaten farmlands, impacting pest control, pollination, nutrient cycling and primary production
    • Invading fungal pathogens, forbs, shrubs, insects and mammals threaten forest, impacting timber and genetic resources
    • Invading aquatic plants, fish, molluscs and amphibians threaten freshwater ways, impacting water purification, erosion control, disease regulation and recreation
    • Invading grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees and mammals threaten grasslands, deserts and tundra, impacting forage, genetic resources, air quality, nutrient cycling and cultural heritage (Charles and Dukes, 2007)