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Wildlife in a warming world

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Life on Earth is facing its greatest crisis for millions of years. Habitat destruction, overexploitation and other manmade menaces have put the natural world and the biodiversity that sustains it under immense strain. Species populations have declined by 58 per cent since 1970, and some scientists believe the ‘sixth great extinction’ in Earth’s history is under way.

And another man-made phenomenon looks set to exacerbate the problem: climate change.

If we don’t take meaningful and urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and so limit global temperature rise, then – as a new study from WWF and the University of East Anglia shows – we can expect devastating losses across every species group and on every continent. If we don’t take action on climate change, we could lose almost half of species from the world’s most precious places. The hotter it gets the more wildlife will be at risk of local extinction – even a 2°C rise will do serious harm.

Losses not inevitable – yet

But it’s not inevitable – at least not yet. If we can restrict the global mean temperature rise to lower levels, such as 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, then we can expect to protect more wildlife. Redoubled conservation efforts on the ground to protect, restore and connect vital habitats and enable species to adapt to a changing climate will also make a big difference to their survival prospects. And our well-being and future too.

In Paris in 2015, almost every country agreed to strive to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Commitments, though, are meaningless unless they’re backed up with actions. Under current Paris Agreement pledges, the global temperature rise over the next century is projected to be about 3.2°C. That’s a long, long way from being adequate, and this report leaves us in no doubt at all as to the catastrophic effects such a rise would have on wildlife in our most important natural areas.

Climate change linked to biodiversity

Our research complements a raft of work being done by climate scientists and conservationists around the world. All the time, we’re learning more about the links between climate change and biodiversity – and every study underlines the need for urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and consider climate change when undertaking conservation work. Warming has already begun, and it’s already having an impact.

It’s not too late and together anything is possible. The time for talking is past and we have to take our opportunity now – if we wait another few years, our chance will have gone forever.

Stephen Cornelius is Chief Advisor – Climate for WWF-UK.

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