Animal and plant species are being killed off faster than ever before as human populations surge and people consume more, a United Nations report is expected to say this week.
It will warn that the expansion of countries such as China, India and Brazil is adding hugely to the environmental threats already generated by developed western nations, and that a third of species could face extinction this century.
The report is one of the starkest issued by the UN and the decision to draw an explicit link between extinction rates and economic growth makes it politically sensitive.
It will point out that the extinction threat extends across all main ecosystems, affecting living things as diverse as tree frogs, coral reefs and river dolphins.
“It’s a problem if we continue this unsustainable pattern of production and consumption,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, the UN’s leading figure on biological diversity. “If the 9 billion people predicted to be with us by 2050 were to have the same lifestyle as Americans, we would need five planets.”
Djoghlaf said humans would suffer too because many threatened species were important for food and raw materials.
Some green groups fear the relentless rise of China and India risks undoing years of conservation work in the West.
“The magnitude of the damage [to ecosystems] is much bigger than previously thought,” said Djoghlaf. “The rate of extinction is currently running at 1,000 times the natural historical background rate of extinction.”
The most recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 17,291 of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction. They include 21% of all known mammals, 30% of amphibians, 35% of invertebrates and 70% of plants.
Of the world’s 5,490 mammals, 79 are classified as extinct in the wild by the IUCN Red List, regarded as the most authoritative assessment of the world’s species. A further 188 are categorised as critically endangered, 449 are endangered and 505 are classed as vulnerable.
The fishing cat in south Asia, for example, has moved from vulnerable to endangered because of threats to its habitat from agriculture, pollution, excessive hunting and logging. The Iberian lynx, whose numbers have fallen to between 84 and 143 in Spain and Portugal, is critically endangered.
Djoghlaf said the threat to marine ecosystems had increased significantly and had now become “one of the most important threats to the future of mankind”. The Irrawaddy snubfin dolphin and the south Asian river dolphin are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and endangered respectively.
The new UN report, using research from 120 nations, will show that no country in the world has succeeded in halting the loss of biodiversity and that 89% of those who submitted reports had identified climate change as a cause. Pollution and the spread of invasive species have also taken their toll.