World Habitats Increasingly at Risk
If global population numbers reach the UN’s projected 9.7 billion by 2050, a fifth of the world’s remaining forests, grasslands and other natural ecosystems—nearly 20 million square kilometres—are at risk due to development, according to a comprehensive new study published in October in the Public Library of Science (PLOS).
Comprehensive Study First of its Kind
Using publicly available global data sets, researchers mapped patterns of expected development not only for urban and agricultural expansion, but for conventional and unconventional oil and gas development, coal, solar, wind, biofuel and mining. This allowed them to identify habitats most at risk of conversion world-wide, as well as geographical areas of priority and cumulative threat.
The Cost of Business as Usual
Researchers identified 76% of Earth’s land (excluding Antarctica) as natural habitat. In the next 35 years, they project, the cumulative effects of development will impact the planet’s remaining natural landscapes in innumerable and profound ways. Among their findings:
- Urbanization, agriculture and energy could swallow up to 20% of the world’s remaining natural land by 2050.
- Urban areas will nearly double by 2030.
- Land use for mining will rise by 60% by 2050.
- Land use for agriculture will grow by one-third by 2050, resulting in nearly a billion new hectares of agricultural land.
- More than 50% of the world’s biomes—naturally occurring areas of major flora and fauna—may be lost to conversion. Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, shrub lands, forests and deserts make up two-thirds of areas projected for development.
- 224 eco-regions—large units of land containing geographically distinct species, natural communities and environmental conditions—have 50% or more natural habitat at risk due to development. In particular, substantial changes in conversion are projected for Central and Eastern Africa, Southern and Western South America and within the Central Rocky Mountain region of North America.
- Africa and South America, currently among the least developed regions and where population growth is projected to be the most profound, have the most amount of land under potential development risk. Converted lands could double in South America and triple in Africa to an area larger than Australia by 2050.
Population Policies Needed
The study notes that only 5% of natural environments threatened by development are under strict legal protection. It calls upon international corporations, governments and conservation organizations to collaborate to reduce and minimize potential future impacts on remaining habitats. However, conspicuously absent is any mention of developing population policies to meet conservation objectives, even as the study indicates land conversion will expand rapidly to accommodate the demands of rising human numbers. Especially in parts of Africa, which will account for much of the projected population growth this century, policies to promote stabilization are critically important. If population growth is neglected, even the strictest conservation measures are doomed to fail, as the needs of the planet's growing human numbers inevitably takes precedence over the land and its increasingly fragile ecosystems.
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