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Scientists call for effort to end destruction of terrestrial ecosystems

By Brooks Hays
Natural habitat has become increasingly fragmented as more and more land is cleared for human development. Photo by University of Queensland
Natural habitat has become increasingly fragmented as more and more land is cleared for human development. Photo by University of Queensland

Dec. 17 (UPI) -- In a new paper, a team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Queensland have laid out a roadmap for how to end the continued loss of nature.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests some countries are better positioned to restore natural vegetation, while other countries can only hope to limit ecosystem losses.

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"Across the globe, our natural habitats are suffering, with alarming impacts on biodiversity, the climate and other critical natural systems -- impacts that affect people too," lead study author Martine Maron, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Queensland, said in a news release. "To stop the loss, there have been calls for global policy-makers to set targets to protect the nature we have left. It's a lofty goal, but for it to be achievable, it needs to be equitable."

To determine a fair path forward, researchers examined the loss of natural ecosystems in 170 countries. Scientists also looked at socioeconomic factors in each country to estimate how conservation efforts would affect the country's economy and citizens.

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The main problem is that many of the wealthiest countries in the world have already depleted large portions of their natural resources. To contribute fairly to the goal of ending ecosystem losses, researchers suggest these countries will need to restore natural vegetation.

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"On the other hand, there are some countries with largely intact remaining ecosystems and urgent human development imperatives, which may need to accept limited and controlled depletion," Maron said. "The latter include some of the world's poorest countries, so finding a way for essential development to proceed without locking in the current ongoing declines of natural ecosystems is critical."

The authors of the new study hope their work will inspire world leaders to come to an agreement on how to prevent further loss of nature.

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Next year, the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity will meet and work to develop a new Global Biodiversity Framework.

More than half of the planet's terrestrial vegetation has already been cleared, and dozens of studies have outlined the negative effects of habitat and biodiversity loss on plants and animals. Natural ecosystems not only support biodiversity, but also protect coastal communities from extreme weather, store carbon and help stabilize the planet's climate.

"Now's the time to work out what we really want a future Earth to look like, and soon our governments will be collectively deciding just that," Maron said. "Loss without limit is the paradigm under which natural ecosystems are currently being destroyed -- this needs to stop. We need a strong, overarching goal to retain, restore and protect natural ecosystems, while dramatically increasing conservation ambitions globally."

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