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Environment suffering multiple crises that threaten to destabilise society and global economy, experts warn

Thinktank warns ‘runaway crisis’ could lead to migration, famine and war comparable to 2008 financial crash

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 12 February 2019 13:17 GMT
Sir David Attenborough at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice: Climate change 'our greatest threat'

World leaders have failed to recognise the unprecedented “environmental breakdown” taking place across the world, a think tank has warned.

Climate change – along with mass extinctions, soil erosion and pollution – represent enormous dangers that threaten the stability of societies and economies across the globe.

The predicted “runaway collapse”, including financial instability, involuntary migration, conflict and famine, is comparable to the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

In a new report issued by the group, the authors warn that the disregard shown for these issues by nations has been a “catastrophic mistake”.

“Our research shows how urgent it is that we understand and address a much wider range of environmental issues than climate change alone,” said Laurie Laybourn-Langton, lead author of the report.

“Overall, the environment is breaking down, with consequences which include more drought, famine, forced migration and war.

“Environmental breakdown poses a catastrophic risk. This is a crisis.”

In the UK, “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, populations of the most threatened species have fallen by two-thirds on average since 1970.

Some 2 million tons of topsoil is eroded annually and nearly 85 per cent of fertile peat soil in East Anglia has gone since 1850, with the rest at risk of being lost in the next 30 to 60 years.

Politicians and officials need to understand the scale and pace of environmental breakdown, the implications for societies, and the need for large-scale transformation to tackle the crisis, the researchers said.

The report also warned that countries like the UK needed to start planning for the impacts of changes that are already set to occur, for example as a result of rising global temperatures.

Natural systems are being damaged by phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from farming, and pollution from various sources such as vehicle emissions and plastic waste is also causing problems, the report adds.

“This is a crisis particularly for millennial and younger generations – the leaders of tomorrow,” said Lesley Rankin, a researcher at IPPR.

“They face the daunting twin tasks of preventing environmental breakdown while responding to its growing negative effects and the failure to stop the damage sooner.”

The report also points to the shrinking hole in the ozone layer and the rollout of clean technologies as rare examples of successful action to avert catastrophe.

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“We need to move from these isolated successes to a transformation to make our societies and economies sustainable, just and prepared,” said Ms Rankin.

Responding to the findings, co-leader of the Green Party Jonathan Bartley said the UK government “desperately need to find the political will to take the bold steps so urgently needed”.

“This report is clear – the impact of human activity on our climate is utterly destructive, and it will have serious political and economic implications,” he said.

“There still is an opportunity to build a fairer and more sustainable future, but that window is closing fast.”

Additional reporting by PA

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