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Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low. Since 1500AD there have been 711 vertebrates, and around 600 invertebrates and plants known to have gone extinct but the actual number is likely to be considerably greater. In the future, it is predicted that extinction rates are likely to further increase more than ten-fold over coming decades.

Humans have been affecting global biodiversity for tens of thousands of years. There may have been extinctions which we do not know about. However, extinctions are now estimated to be occurring perhaps at least ten to a hundred times faster than they were in pre-human times. If that continues, the number of extinctions is likely to increase dramatically.

Currently 37,400 animal and plant species are known to be threatened with extinction – roughly 28% of the 134,000 assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The true figure is expected to be far higher when accounting for the total number of species on the planet.
One recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that as many as 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction – more than ever before in human history.

Much of the reason for the acceleration in extinctions is the growing pressure on species from human-driven land and coastal use change, over-exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. 

Although there has been an expansion of protected areas both on land and in the oceans since 2000, this will not compensate for species already lost. According to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report 2020, the animal populations they assessed decreased by an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016.

Climate change is expected to place further pressure on these diminishing populations by altering habitats and triggering extreme events such as more frequent wildfires and flooding. It may also promote the spread of invasive species and diseases with the result that many already threatened species are likely to be pushed over the edge to extinction in the decades to come.

To find out more Past and future decline and extinction of species | Royal Society

Find answers to 16 key questions about biodiversity

  • Introduction

    At its simplest, biodiversity describes life on Earth – the different genes, species and ecosystems that comprise the biosphere and the varying habitats, landscapes and regions in which they exist. We've answered some of your most popular questions about biodiversity.

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  • What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is all the living things on our planet – from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. So far, we have identified around 1.6 million species but that is probably only a small fraction of the forms of life on Earth.

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  • Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have healthy ecosystems.

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  • How do we measure biodiversity?

    There is still much we do not know about the complexity of biodiversity on Earth. There are a number of ways that we measure it, with counting species the most common approach.

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  • What is the scale of biodiversity loss?

    The list of known recent extinctions is still a small fraction of all species on the planet but it is far above prehuman levels and the evidence suggests it is rising fast.

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  • We regularly hear of new species being discovered - does that not offset the loss of existing species?

    Every year thousands of previously unknown species are discovered, described and named.

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  • Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

    Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics.

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  • Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

    Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low.

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  • What is the state of biodiversity in the UK?

    The UK boasts more than 70,000 known species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

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  • How do humans affect biodiversity?

    Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental.

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  • How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the human population has grown dramatically.

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  • How does climate change affect biodiversity?

    The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear.

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  • How does deforestation affect biodiversity?

    Forests contain some of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. But between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of mainly tropical forest has been lost.

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  • What can we do to protect biodiversity?

    Loss of natural habitats has been taking place over thousands of years, but scientists are confident that we have ways to help biodiversity recover.

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  • What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?

    While large scale changes in behaviour, policies and measures will be essential, individuals have a vital part to play.

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  • Can we allow nature to regenerate without intervention?

    Biodiversity loss is a complex issue involving many overlapping processes. While nature can recover when left to do so, it requires dramatic changes in our behaviour for this to happen.

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  • How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

    The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from their raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits they provide.

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