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February 24, 2019

ALEX AWITI: Can we act to save our planet?


The landmark 20th edition of the ‘Living Planet Report’ has just been released. This report published by WWF tracks the state of global biodiversity and provides cutting edge research on the impact of humans on the health of our planet.

We are living in what Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen calls the Anthropocene Age in which our impact on planet Earth has been unprecedented in its scale of destruction. One of the outcomes of the Anthropocene is the Great Acceleration, which has brought immense benefits for our kind but also wrought irreversible damage to our fragile planet.

Immense progress has come at a huge expense. Our oceans are warm and toxic. Greenhouse gases from agriculture, transport and industrial activities have thrown up a heat trap that has occasioned dangerous warming. Demand for land and water resources for agriculture, settlement, mineral ores and petroleum is decimating critical biodiversity upon which the delicate balance of the fragile planet hangs.

Scientists have shown that the extinction of 75 per cent of all plants and animals (amphibian, reptile, birds and mammals) was caused by extractive activity and agriculture. This spiraling extraction and agricultural production is driven by an exponential expansion of consumption in the modern era. Moreover, we have lost about 87 per cent of wetland resources.

Our Ecological Footprint, the measure of our consumption of ecological resources, varies vastly across the world, and is driven by how much food we produce (let alone consume), goods and service we utilise and the greenhouse gases associated with their production.

The soil beneath us is a storehouse vital for biodiversity. These lifeforms, from fungi to moles, are critical for regulating atmospheric carbon and absorption of nutrients by plants. Scientists show that climate change, pollution and nutrient overloading, land degradation and intensive agriculture are threatening soil biodiversity.

Johan Rockström, professor of Environmental Science, and colleagues, introduced the concept of planetary boundaries, which they define as a safe operating space for the human enterprise based on intrinsic biological and physical processes that regulate the functioning of the Earth System.

The ‘Living Planet Report’ reveals an overall decline of 60 per cent in species population sizes between 1974 and 2014, while rates of species extinction are 100 to 1,000 times higher than before the permanence of the Anthropocene.

The ‘Living Planet Report’ comes on the heels of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which revealed that eight per cent of plants and four per cent of vertebrates are projected to lose more than half of their climatically determined range under 1.5°C temperature rise.

In a paper published in 2015, Rockström and colleagues posit that two core boundaries — climate change and biodiversity loss — have the potential to drive the Earth System into a new, alternative state should they be significantly and persistently transgressed.

The ‘Living Planet Report’ adds to the ever-increasing number of alarm bells, which show that our activities in the era of the Anthropocene have put our planet in peril. Can we save our planet?

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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