Scientists have issued an urgent “warning to humanity” about the global impact of tree extinctions.
A new paper predicts serious consequences for people, wildlife and the planet’s ecosystems if the widespread loss of trees continues. “Last year we released the State of the World’s Trees report, in which we showed that at least 17,500 tree species, or about a third of the world’s 60,000 tree species , are threatened with extinction,” said Malin Rivers, lead author of the paper and head of conservation prioritization at Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). “Now we want to highlight why it is important that so many tree species go extinct.
“If we don’t act now, it will impact humanity, our economies and our livelihoods. Ecologically, this will have a catastrophic impact on the planet.
The joint warning from BGCI and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) Global Tree Specialist Group is backed by 45 scientists from more than 20 countries, including the UK, USA, India and Haiti, with calls for action signed by over 30 organizations including botanic gardens, arboretums and universities.
According to the document, the world’s forests contribute $1.3 billion (£1.1 billion) to the global economy. Timber is the most valuable commodity, but non-timber products, such as fruits, nuts and medicines, generate $88 billion in global trade. Of the fruits available for global consumption, 53% come from trees.
Globally, more than 1.6 billion people live within 5 km (3 miles) of a forest and depend on it for their work and money. In developing countries, forests provide up to 25% of household income.
“Some people live in the forest and use it for sustenance, for food, shelter and medical care,” Rivers said. “Many more people are using forests for their income, to sell things they harvest or make from the forest. All of these people will be directly affected by tree losses. Many trees also have special spiritual or cultural significance. When these tree species are lost, this cultural heritage is also lost, like the dragon’s blood trees in Yemen or the baobabs in Madagascar.
Large-scale extinction of tree species would lead to major losses of biodiversity. Half of the world’s animal and plant species depend on trees for habitat, with forests containing around 75% of bird species, 68% of mammal species and up to 10 million invertebrate species. Forest-dependent species have already declined by around 53% since 1970. “When we look at extinction risks for mammals or birds, that underlies habitat loss, and habitat loss is often the loss of trees,” Rivers said. “If we don’t take care of the trees, there’s no way to take care of all the other life forms out there.”
The extinction of a single tree species can dramatically alter an ecosystem, causing a domino effect in its ability to function. When eucalypts and dipterocarps are destroyed, for example, forests are more exposed to fires, pests and diseases.
Forests provide 50% of global carbon storage, so further tree extinctions would reduce our ability to fight climate breakdown. “The novelty of this paper is that it’s the diversity of trees that’s so important,” Rivers said. “We show that diversified forests store more carbon than monocultures. This is true for many ecological functions, not just carbon sequestration, but also providing habitat for animals, stabilizing soils, resistance to pests and diseases, resistance to storms and weather. By losing the diversity of trees, we will also lose the diversity of all organisms: birds, animals, fungi, microorganisms, insects.
Over 100 tree species are already extinct in the wild, but despite their importance, billions of trees are still lost each year to pests, diseases, invasive species, drought, degradation from climate and industrial-scale deforestation for timber, cattle ranching, palm oil and other crops, from tropical islands to species-rich regions, such as the Amazon and Borneo.
Ahead of the UN’s Cop15 biodiversity conference in Montreal in December, the scientists behind the paper are calling for more protection for the world’s trees, including strengthening the role of trees in environmental and climate policy at global level. States.
“We want to see some action,” Rivers said. “We can all take responsibility for the beef we eat and where it comes from, and ensure that tree products come from sustainable sources. But we also want to see governments take their responsibilities, so there is a common reflection on biodiversity, climate change and other issues.
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