Fifty per cent of all plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas, such as the Amazon and Galapagos, could face local extinction by the turn of the century if carbon emissions aren’t brought into check.
That’s according to a new study carried out jointly between the University of East Anglia, James Cook University and WWF which claims that even if the Paris Climate Agreement 2°C target is met, these places could lose 25% of their species.
The research has been published today (Wednesday, 14 March) in the journal ‘Climatic Change’ – just ahead of WWF’s Earth Hour, the world’s largest environmental event.
Researchers examined the impact of climate change on nearly 80,000 plant and animal species in 35 of the world’s most diverse and naturally wildlife-rich areas – exploring a number of different climate change futures, from a no-emissions-cuts case in which global mean temperatures rise by 4.5°C, to a 2°C rise, the upper limit for temperature in the Paris Agreement.
They found that the Miombo Woodlands, which are home to African wild dogs; south-west Australia, and the Amazon-Guianas could be among the most affected areas.
The report suggests that if there was a 4.5°C global mean temperature rise, the climates in these areas could become unsuitable for many of the plants and animals currently liveing there. This means:
• Up to 90% of amphibians, 86% of birds and 80% of mammals could potentially become locally extinct in the Miombo Woodlands, Southern Africa
• The Amazon could lose 69% of its plant species
• In south-west Australia 89% of amphibians could become locally extinct
• 60% of all species are at risk of localised extinction in Madagascar
• The Fynbos in the Western Cape Region of South Africa, which is experiencing a drought that has led to water shortages in Cape Town, could face localised extinctions of a third of its species, many of which are unique to that region.
As well as this, increased average temperatures and more erratic rainfall could become be the “new normal” according to the report – with significantly less rainfall in the Mediterranean, Madagascar and the Cerrado-Pantanal in Argentina. Potential effects include:
• Pressure on the water supplies of African elephants – who need to drink 150-300 litres of water a day
• 96% of the breeding grounds of Sundarbans tigers could become submerged by sea-level rise
• Comparatively fewer male marine turtles due to temperature-induced sex assignment of eggs.
If species can move freely to new locations then the risk of local extinction decreases from around 25% to 20% with a 2°C global mean temperature rise. If species cannot they may not be able to survive. Most plants, amphibians and reptiles, such as orchids, frogs and lizards cannot move quickly enough to keep up with these climatic changes.
Lead researcher Prof Rachel Warren of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA said: “Our research quantifies the benefits of limiting global warming to 2°C for species in 35 of the world’s most wildlife-rich areas.
“We studied 80,000 species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and found that 50% of species could be lost from these areas without climate policy. However, if global warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, this could be reduced to 25%. Limiting warming to within 1.5°C was not explored, but would be expected to protect even more wildlife.”
Overall the research is said to show the best way to protect against species loss is to keep global temperature rise as low as possible.
The Paris Agreement pledges to reduce the expected level of global warming from 4.5°C to around 3°C, which reduces the impacts, but WWF says we see even greater improvements at 2°C; and it is likely that limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C would protect more wildlife.
That’s why, on Saturday, 24 March at 8.30pm, millions of people across the world will come together for Earth Hour and show their commitment to reducing global emissions, as well as protecting people and wildlife from the impacts of climate change.
WWF says the event also sends a clear message to business and government that there is a global will to change this trajectory.
Dr Sam Gardner, Acting Director of WWF Scotland, said: “Within our children’s lifetime, places like the Amazon and Galapagos Islands could become unrecognisable, with half the species that live there wiped out by human-caused climate change.
“Around the world, beautiful iconic animals like Amur tigers (pictured) or Javan rhinos are at risk of disappearing, as well as tens of thousands of plants and smaller creatures that are the foundation of all life on earth.
“That is why this Earth Hour we are asking everyone to make a promise for the planet and make the everyday changes needed to protect our planet.
“Scotland has an important role to play in helping restore our fragile environment and wildlife, that’s why we’re calling on the Scottish Government to ensure that the forthcoming Climate Change Bill ends our contribution to climate change in a generation.
“This commitment will match that of other nations in the vanguard of climate leadership and help to build the momentum we need if we are to prevent the worst impact of climate change on our most precious species.”