Half of plant and animal species at risk from climate change in world’s most important natural places | WWF New Zealand

Half of plant and animal species at risk from climate change in world’s most important natural places

Posted on
14 March 2018

LONDON – WWF, the University of East Anglia and the James Cook University today released a landmark new study showing that up to 50 per cent of plant and animal species in global biodiversity hotspots like the Amazon and the Galapagos could face local extinction by 2100 due to climate change, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unchecked. By meeting the Paris Climate Agreement 2°C target, we can cut these impacts in half.

Published today in the journal Climatic Change 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.

The report finds that the Miombo Woodlands, home to African wild dogs, south-west Australia and the Amazon-Guianas are projected to be some of the most affected areas. If there was a 4.5°C global mean temperature rise, the climates in these areas are projected to become unsuitable for many of the plants and animals that currently live there meaning:

  • in south-west Australia, 89 per cent of amphibians could become locally extinct
  • in the Miombo Woodlands, Southern Africa, up to 90 per cent of amphibians, 86 per cent of birds and 80 per cent of mammals could potentially become locally extinct
  • the Amazon could lose 69 per cent of its plant species
  • in Madascar, 60 per cent of all species could become locally extinct
  • in the Fynbos in the Western Cape Region of South Africa (which is experiencing the 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.

The report also shows that increased average temperatures and more erratic rainfall could become be the “new normal” – 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 per cent 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.

Lead researcher Prof Rachel Warren from 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 per cent 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 per cent. Limiting warming to within 1.5°C was not explored, but would be expected to protect even more wildlife.”

Overall the research shows that the best way to protect against species loss is to keep global temperature rise as low as possible. The Paris Agreement Pledges, made by countries, reduce the expected level of global warming from 4.5°C to around 3°C, which reduces the impacts, but we see even greater improvements at 2°C. Limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is likely to protect even more wildlife.

Livia Esterhazy, CEO of WWF-New Zealand, said:

“Together, it is possible for us to avoid many of the worst impacts of climate change – both for humans, and for the natural world around us. We know that New Zealand’s unique plants and animals are already facing real climate impacts. We can’t avoid all the impacts of climate change, but it’s still 100% possible to limit warming to well below 2°C. That’s why it's so important for Kiwis and New Zealand businesses to work together to prove climate action is bigger than politics, so we can get the Zero Carbon Act passed with cross party support.”

Tanya Steele, CEO of WWF-UK commented:

“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 or Javan rhinos are at risk of disappearing, as well as tens of thousands 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 to protect our planet.”

Dr Jeff Price, coordinator of the Wallace Initiative and also from UEA, said:

“This research provides a view on the differing spatial impacts of climate change on biodiversity. It shows the benefits of combining citizen science with the research and resources of highly-ranked Universities to assist an NGO with their conservation activities.”

Case studies

What individual species will experience:

  • Orang-Utans have a solitary life-style which allows them to move to cope with reduced food availability due to changing climates. However, females are strictly bound to their territories, which will prevent them from moving, and can put them at risk as there is a general reduction in available forest habitat due to deforestation, climate change and other human pressures
  • Snow leopards already live under extreme conditions with very little margin for changes which makes them particularly sensitive to changes in climate. Their habitat will shrink by 20 per cent due to climate change and will put them into greater direct competition over food and territory with the common leopard, which will likely lead to a further decline in numbers. 
  • Tigers live in highly fragmented landscapes and will be greatly impacted by further climate-induced habitat loss. For example, projected sea level rise will submerge 96 per cent of breeding habitat for the Sundarbans tigers, and Amur tigers are unlikely to persist to the next century if the size and quality of their habitat is reduced. 
  • Polar bears are among the most sensitive to climate change because they depend on sea ice to live and eat. Younger polar bears that are not as practiced hunters are particularly affected by food shortages due to shrinking sea ice. Polar bears in some areas are already in decline - for example, the population in Hudson Bay has been already reduced by 22 per cent - and are predicted to sharply decline by the end of the 21st century due to climate change. 
  • Marine Turtles are highly sensitive to climate warming. While adults have been known to move to avoid too warm waters, a changing climate will impact greatly on their offspring. Tortoises and turtles are among the species with temperature-dependent sex determination. Warmer temperatures will produce more females resulting in a dangerous sex bias. Also increased flooding will increase egg mortality and warmer sand will also produce smaller and weaker hatchlings. 

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