The UN's devastating extinction report, explained in 5 charts

Unpacking how we got here.

Orangutans, native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, are critically endangered as humans are cutting down their old-growth rainforest habitats to build palm oil plantations. Without a "transformative change" of human behavior, orangutans and over a million other species could go extinct, a new UN report warns.Alex Schwartz

We're not going to sugarcoat it: The latest news from the United Nations is pretty dire. A summary of a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says human activity is threatening the existence of over a million plant and animal species—more than ever before in human history.

The IPBES will release a groundbreaking report later this year on their findings, which they refer to as the most “comprehensive assessment of its kind.” The full package will be some 1,500 pages long, authored by 145 experts from more than 50 countries and drawing from more than 15,000 scientific and government sources. But the summary is alarming enough on its own.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide,” IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said in a press release.

How did we get here? The report, while outlining the extent of the ecological destruction that could occur around the world, thankfully answers that question too—with lots and lots of statistics. While overwhelming, they could be the silver lining in this gloomy report. When we have a detailed diagnosis, it’s a lot easier to come up with a treatment. Let’s take a dive into the data:

species graphic
There are more than 8 million species estimated on Earth, losing a million of those species would eliminate a massive chunk.Infographic by Alex Schwartz

There are more than 8 million species estimated on Earth, though scientists discover new ones every day—we could be driving some we don’t even know about to extinction. Losing a million of those species would eliminate a massive chunk, with amphibians, insects, and non-fish reef dwellers taking the biggest hits. While climate change is playing an increasing role in all this (5 percent of species are expected to go extinct just as a result of 2˚C of warming alone), there are many activities humans engage in that the report links directly to the loss of species.

forests graphic
Less than 70 percent of the Earth’s forests that existed before the industrial revolution remain.Infographic by Alex Schwartz

Forests have taken major hits, primarily from agriculture. Today, less than 70 percent of the Earth's forests that existed before the industrial revolution remain. In the tropics—particularly tropical rainforests, which contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet—more than 100 million hectares have been cut down between 1980 and 2000. That's bigger than the country of Venezuela. Cattle ranchers in Latin America cleared almost half of this land, while palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia are responsible for the loss of about 6 million hectares. Cutting down tropical forests disproportionately affects the planet's total species number: While they cover less than 10 percent of the Earth's land, they house more than half the planet's terrestrial species.

water graphic
Since the 1870s, over half the world’s coral reefs have died, largely due to bleaching events worsened by warming oceans, agricultural runoff, and industrial pollution.Infographic by Alex Schwartz

We’ve also wreaked havoc on the oceans, having brought industrial fishing to over half of their surface area. A third of fish stocks are being fished unsustainably, and 60 percent are being fished at the maximum level to qualify as sustainable. Since the 1870s, over half the world’s coral reefs have died, largely due to bleaching events worsened by warming oceans, agricultural runoff, and industrial pollution. Wetlands like marshes, swamps, and mangroves have been decimated since the 18th Century, primarily as a result of coastal development. And there are 400 known coastal “dead zones,” in which ultra-concentrated nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus have caused intense algae blooms that suck up oxygen and make water uninhabitable for most marine organisms. These dead zones are the result of industrial fertilizer running off into the ocean.

land use graphic
To date, humans have altered three fourths of all land on Earth (and about two thirds of all water).Infographic by Alex Schwartz

Humans have managed to alter three fourths of all land on Earth (and about two thirds of all water), and we’re consuming more of it every day. A third of the world’s land is used for agriculture, the growth of cities since 1992 has more than doubled, and the report’s authors expect more than 25 million kilometers of new roads to be built by 2050—90 percent of which will be in developing countries.

indigenous land graphic
The report emphasizes that drawing on indigenous knowledge could help see us through this crisis as Indigenous groups manage almost a third of the world’s landInfographic by Alex Schwartz

The report emphasizes that it's the first biodiversity study done at this scale to incorporate knowledge from indigenous communities around the globe. It advises policymakers to consider their perspective and "positive contributions to sustainability" when addressing these issues, and that drawing on indigenous knowledge could help see us through this crisis. Indigenous groups manage almost a third of the world's land, which includes 40 percent of all formally protected areas and 37 percent of land that's unprotected, but still relatively undisturbed by humans. The report notes that biodiversity in these areas is deteriorating at a slower rate than elsewhere (in the Amazon, deforestation on indigenous lands occurs at a rate 50 percent lower than on non-indigenous land)—a testament to how indigenous knowledge can help humans avoid destroying nature. However, these areas are still under pressure: 72 percent of local species used by indigenous groups are on the decline.

The report says these negative trends will undermine progress for 80 percent of the assessed targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which address issues from poverty to healthcare to hunger. A loss of biodiversity at the scale foreshadowed in the report would affect medicine, food systems, energy, and much more.

But the report didn’t stop there. A common theme among all these issues is agriculture—we’re producing food without regard for how it will affect ecosystems—and the UN notes this could be a place to seek solutions. The authors argue that a holistic, localized approach to farming will have social and economic benefits beyond the food system. It also recommends conserving species of plants and animals and reducing food waste.

To stop the degradation of the oceans, the report recommends incorporating ecological knowledge into how we manage fisheries. Establishing marine protected areas—which have proven to benefit marine species around the globe—and reducing runoff and industrial pollution into oceans should also be priorities, according to the report. It also advocates for preventing runoff and pollution in freshwater systems and increasing freshwater storage.

Even cities can provide solutions. The report says introducing green space in urban areas could improve the health of native species. It also suggests improving health and access to services for urban low-income populations, who often bear the brunt of environmental problems in cities.

While fixing these widespread issues won’t be a cakewalk, the report says we can still avoid extinction doom.

“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably,” Watson said in the release, adding that such change “can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”