If you drove your car at dusk 30 years ago, you would probably need to clean the windshield frequently. But that's no longer the case, says Scott McArt, a professor of entomology at Cornell University.
Scientists have coined a new phrase, the "windshield effect", to describe insect declines, he explains. “Insect pollinators are unfortunately an excellent example of the problems caused by human activities ... We’re generally having a negative impact on the environment, which is leading to population declines and extinctions of many species including corals, frogs, bees and butterflies."
He was commenting on the findings of a watershed 1500-page report by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
On May 6, a 40-page summary of the IPBES Global Assessment was released in Paris, laying bare how humanity is destroying the ecosystems that underpin their lives.
The landmark report warns how one million species of plants and animals are threatened with human-induced extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The intensity of the drivers of biodiversity loss must be halted. "Without such action there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years," reads the summary report.
Described as the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, it's based on a review of 15 000 scientific and government sources and was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, including South Africa.
They found overwhelming evidence that human activities are behind the "dangerous" and "unprecedented" decline of the natural world. "Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing," says Prof. Josef Settele, a co-chair, in a statement.
"The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years has been unprecedented in human history. In this period, the human population has doubled, the global economy has grown nearly four-fold and global trade has surged 10-fold, together driving up the demands for energy and materials.
Economic incentives, however, have favoured expanding economic activity, and often environmental harm, over conservation or restoration.
"While more food, energy and materials than ever before are now being supplied to people in most places, this is increasingly at the expense of nature's ability to provide such contributions in the future and frequently undermines nature's many other contributions," say the authors.
The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has plummeted by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. "More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of re-efforming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened."
Biodiversity - the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems - is declining faster than at any time in human history.
The implications are manifold, says Belinda Reyers, a co-ordinating lead author of the Global Assessment and professor in sustainability science at Stellenbosch University. "The food we eat, the clean water we drink and the air we breathe can all be traced back to a species or ecosystem either pollinating our crops, regulating water flows, or purifying our air.
"Some of these may be replaceable, but many are not. Everything is connected – and so losing species or part of an ecosystem will have impacts on people," says Reyers.
Coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events through the deterioration of coral reefs, mangroves and foredunes that once protected them.
The impacts of these declines in species and ecosystems are inequitably distributed, with those who can least afford it bearing the highest cost, Reyers explains.
"The ongoing crisis in our neighbouring countries from the impacts of cyclone Idai are just one such example linking climate change, ecosystem degradation and ongoing food insecurity. For those of us living more wealthy buffered lives, we may not think we feel these impacts as directly (yet), but IPBES highlights that we are all being impacted by these declines in less material, but no less significant ways – through our mental well-being, our health, our culture and our identity eroding as we lose nature and important connections with nature. We are all poorer for this loss."
The world has agreed to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which aim to make the world fairer, more prosperous and sustainable for current and future generations, but IPBES' work has found current declines in nature and ecosystem services will "undermine our global ability to meet many of these goals, in some cases actually preventing their achievement".
This will not only harm development efforts in low income countries but the knock on effects through migration, food price shocks, and political unrest "will have ripple effects around the world – some of which we can already see and feel in South Africa and elsewhere".
The global goals, she explains, are very similar to goals and objectives in the South African National Development Plan and "therefore just as vulnerable to national declines in species and ecosystem services - and just as possible to support through improvements in the state of our biodiversity and ecosystems".
South Africa, Reyers explains, is a microcosm of the global challenge. "Despite increasing efforts to conserve biodiversity by significant increases in our protected area estate (a global trend also found in IPBES), the big drivers of change that IPBES found are also at work in SA – land and sea-use change, over exploitation of species, climate change, pollution and invasive species."
Protected areas are not enough to stem losses from these big forces. "Industrial agriculture, urban and transport infrastructure, mining, pollution and many other activities are changing the face of the world and South African landscapes, ecosystems and species with consequences for our health, our wellbeing and our society."
There are better ways to grow food, build cities, mine, sustainably use species and develop society that have "lighter impacts on the environment and share the benefits more widely", but the examples in SA are small and fragmented, says Reyers.
It's about how nature is valued in business, policy and society. "This is not monetary value but rather how we account for the benefits from nature, and the costs of its deterioration, in our day-to-day activities. At present those are treated as invisible, ignored and deferred to others and to future generations."
For those not feeling the immediate impacts, "it’s time to think about who is bearing the costs of our impacts on species and ecosystems through the lifestyle and consumer choices we're making.
"Impacts that may even be happening in countries and places far distant from where we live, which provide your food, the palm oil in your soap or chocolate bar, your clothes, your furniture and your cell phone."
Reyers believes South African society is often sold a "false dichotomy that we can either have jobs, or jobs now and nature later. This is not the case and the current situation proves this as we have both declining nature and declining jobs. But we can have nature, jobs, health, equality and more under many of the scenarios of transformative change explored in IPBES - especially those that address inequality, sustainability and climate change, which are all feasible and possible with current technology, knowledge and capacity. But we need to act now."
Professor Nick King, an environmental futurist and global change analyst and strategist, who was in Paris for the IPBES meeting, agrees. "Cumulatively, the stats in the report tell us we are long past the tipping points of the optimal health and functioning of numerous components of the natural world, which provide the ecosystem services which enable and support all human endeavour.
"For far too long humanity has considered itself somehow separate from, and not dependent upon, these services from the natural world, which is of course simply ludicrous. The report makes it abundantly clear that only urgent, transformative change in the way we view ‘development’, our economic system, which incentivises rapacious exploitation and destruction of natural resources, and encourages over-consumption, and addressing human population growth, will have the necessary transformative impact."
All the drivers of these natural resources losses and degradation are driven by human numbers, human consumption, and an economic system, which encourages "unfettered growth" in these, argues King. "Unless we recognise this and catalyse frank, honest conversations around what sort of world we want to create and what sort of world we want to leave to future generations, we are heading for a very unpleasant future – both right now for us, and of course, for them.
"SA is clearly right at the forefront of all this, with arguably the world’s most unequal society, massive unemployment with a population youth bulge continuously exacerbating this, huge water pollution and water and land access problems. (We have) a vast legacy of land, biodiversity and social destruction driven by the extractives sector, which is still not only not being held accountable but actively encouraged to continue, an unacceptable per capita carbon footprint contributing unfairly to climate change, which is devastating our agricultural productivity, and pinning much of our future prospects on tourism while destroying the very resource base of biodiversity upon which this depends. This is all very clearly spelled out in the report."
It should be a "momentous wake-up call" for politicians everywhere regarding the need for urgent change. "But of course the seriousness of these messages will not be pointed out by their officials, they will ignore the NGO and press promotion of it and they definitely won't even read something that tells them they are so dreadfully wrong in their current 'solutions'. This is abundantly clear from the manifestos of the leading political parties in our recent elections ... It's not as if this information is new, we have been well aware of these trends for decades. This report is simply the latest and most comprehensive of such assessments. It does, however, present the information in a much more useful way in that it shows it unequivocally the direct dependency of humanity on these resources we are so rapidly destroying.
"But we will continue to ignore this, with more outdated political rhetoric from the 20th century, completely irrelevant for the situation we now find ourselves in. It's way beyond time our leadership took their collective heads out the sand and looked around at exactly where we are in the 21st century."
Dr Andrew Skowno, of the SA National Biodiversity Institute, says South Africa's own National Biodiversity Assessment is closely aligned with the Global Assessment, "sharing many of the same key messages and indicators on the state of biodiversity"
Its scheduled for release in September. "The increasing risks to species and ecosystems reported in the Global Assessment are unfortunately strongly mirrored in our detailed country level assessment of biodiversity with 14% of species and 50% of our ecosystem types considered to be threatened."
Pressures on the natural environment are generally considered to be increasing globally and again, this is also the case for South Africa, he says. "There are likewise some positive themes in our National Biodiversity Assessment, such as the expansion of our protected area network on both land and sea and its contribution to securing these species and ecosystems, and the growing strength of jobs linked to the biodiversity conservation and tourism sector. Habitat loss on land, over exploitation of our marine resources, and reduced freshwater flow and pollution of our rivers, wetlands and estuaries have left many South African ecosystems on the brink of collapse; eroding the crucial ecological infrastructure and influencing the vital ecosystem services they provide to people and their well-being," Skowno says.
Climate change is the big looming issue, remarks Bob Scholes, professor of systems ecology at Wits University. "We have a special responsibility for the megadiversity, which we harbour, apart from the adaptation of our economy and society. Pollution is an issue here, perhaps not as high on our list. We have a big issue with invasive species, and some world-famous programmes to deal with them (Working for Water)."
Scholes, who had an advisory role on the IPBES report, says to protect biodiversity, "we need to ensure we have a viable conservation network, but then ensure we conserve biodiversity in the 'working landscape' as well, including in agricultural areas and cities. That is where 80% of the land is. We have to move from slowing down the loss to reversing it - the field of restoration."
The natural world remains in "dire straits", says Dr Jeanne Tarrant, the manager of the threatened amphibian programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust. "Despite knowing for decades that these trends were becoming a reality, we have continued to destroy habitats, like the rainforests, and here in South Africa, our grasslands and wetlands, at an alarming rate. We are also failing to meet targets for biodiversity protection and reductions in carbon emissions."
That nearly half of amphibians globally are in decline should ring huge alarm bells. "These animals are our indicators of environmental health. They have been around since before the dinosaurs, and if they are disappearing, it does not bode well for life on earth as we know it."
In South Africa, 29% of frogs are threatened. While this is lower than the global average, the figure is still significant as it shows the extent of habitat destruction and fragmentation.
"Both globally and nationally, we need to apply ourselves to curbing this loss of habitat through protection of what natural spaces remain, and rewilding of those that have been transformed. Earth's resources are finite. We need to find solutions to the demands of consumption of eight billion (and growing) humans that share the planet with millions of other species, which have just as much of a right to remain here as we do. We can all play our part."