photo of elevated road, Brazil

What are the threats to nature?

BBC's Seven Worlds, One Planet highlights the wonders of our natural world, which we depend on for our survival and quality of life. Find out about some of the threats nature is currently facing.
portrait of Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth campaigner
By Paul de Zylva    |      Published:  12 Dec 2017    |      7 minute read

There’s no mystery about why nature is under threat. The assault on the natural world comes from all directions but especially from harmful human activity.

For thousands of years much of human civilisation and advancement has come at the expense of other species and our environment.

Not everyone has been responsible. Many cultures have always lived in step with nature. Many have understood that their lives today and tomorrow are entwined with having vibrant, abundant nature.

But in the main, humans have found clever ways to lay waste to the Earth and to push countless species to the edge of existence.

But we can use our supreme brain power and, if needed, self-interest. There is enough evidence of nature’s decline – and our knowledge of how we could put things right is becoming ever more sophisticated.

It is time to put human ingenuity to use in truly cleverer ways.

photo of pedestrians and tree-lined path
Credit: Thinkstock

Habitat loss: getting out of the habit

For nature to thrive, not just survive, we now need to transform how land is used. This includes how we farm, how we live in cities, our use and re-use of energy and materials and how we tackle poverty without undermining nature.

First, let’s get the C-word out of the way. We can’t entirely predict how things will play out, but climate change is already affecting nature in the UK and globally – see our nature and climate article for more.

Apart from climate change, the main threat to nature starts with habitat loss. This is the number one threat to the diversity of species and to the healthy functioning of the natural systems we rely on for water, food, materials and more of the things we often take for granted. These natural systems are often referred to as eco-systems.

Habitat loss is not an activity in itself. You won’t see a company HQ or a warehousing somewhere with a ‘Habitat Loss “‘R” Us’ neon sign. But habitat is being lost all of the time because it has become implicit in how our economy, stock markets and businesses work and profit from a long list of daily activities we have grown used to as normal. For instance:

  • How we farm land for food and others crops in intensive industrial ways is affecting wildlife and the quality of soils and water.
  • The way we clear forests for timber, to grow palm oil and to make way for farming and cattle ranching.
  • Mining for minerals and for fossil fuels is fundamentally dirty and destructive on land and, increasingly, at sea.
  • Construction of leisure resorts, roads and dams all too often harms nature and turns beauty spots into tourist hotspots or industrial zones which then bring pollution and over-use of water.
photo of burnt tree stumps, Amazon, Brazil
Deforestation in the Amazon, Brazil
Credit: istock

Destroying nature for profit

It is unlikely that you will see any of this damage reflected in the price of goods in the shops. It is also rare for any of these true costs to appear in company annual reports or the FTSE or Dow Jones indices.

But make no mistake, the real costs are being passed on to someone somewhere.

Some in business, finance and government now realise that nature’s decline represents as much of a rising risk for investors as the funding of oil, coal and gas. Most such fossil fuels can never be burned if we’re to stay within safe global temperatures.

Meanwhile, the circulation of money between companies, banks, pension funds, insurance companies, and even by governments using our taxes, is driving nature’s demise.

It's doing so by funding destructive development and operations: dams harming entire rivers, road schemes cutting across fragile nature zones, oil palm plantations replacing rainforests and mining and oil and gas operations polluting and scarring landscapes and sea beds.

Some funds also find their way to corrupt regimes, black markets and hired hands who oppress and even murder people who seek to defend nature, land and livelihoods.

Indeed, the huge flows of money behind these and other activities could be the main driver of nature's decline.

Threats to nature globally

Species have been disappearing at 50-100 times the natural rate. Current trends indicate that 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species now face extinction. This includes 1 in 8 of the world's bird species.

The world’s forests are home to many species but about 45% of the planet’s original forests have been cleared. This has happened mostly during the past century. Replanting trees can help, depending on how it’s done. But forests are still being lost especially in the tropics and other biodiversity hotspots.

Biodiversity loss in Borneo

Borneo is one of the globe's most precious nature hotspots. But here the creep of oil-palm plantations means a fifth of rainforests have been cleared to produce palm oil – that’s used as an ingredient in biscuits, cakes, margarine and other processed foods.

Not all trees are the same. The new oil-palm plantations cannot support the rich and diverse range of plants, insects and animals in a naturally diverse rainforest. Borneo’s altered landscape may look lush and green but it’s no longer supporting as many species. One sign of a healthy natural ecosystem is a wide range of predators. Borneo is losing predators such as mongoose, otters, civets and sun bears. For now the Monitor lizards rule.

photo of Asian water monitor lizard
The monitor lizard has rapidly come to dominate other species in Indonesian oil-palm plantations

Loss of coral reefs and mangroves

Coral reefs are among the richest of ecosystems. Some 10% of the world’s reefs have been destroyed by direct damage and by pollution. A third of remaining reefs face bleaching and collapse in the coming 10-20 years.

Photo of fish swimming at Great Barrier Reef
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots
Credit: CSharker/CC0

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying. The cause is a combination of dumping of waste, and land clearances for development and sugar cane plantations which mean soils and pesticides run off into the sea.

This is self-inflicted harm. The reef has been estimated to be worth AU$52 billion to Australia’s communities and businesses. The loss of the reef as a tourist attraction will affect 90% of those.

Similarly, half of the world’s coastal mangroves have been lost to development and damage. Their loss ruins vital nursery habitats for countless species and undermines mangroves’ vital role in lessening the effects of storm surges.

Threats to UK nature

Are you ready for this? Nature is also in trouble in the UK. In the past 50 years more than half of our wild species have declined. If the prime minister told parliament that 56% of the nation’s assets had declined, it would be front page news for weeks.

Litter, pollution and nature

Even if you don’t live near the sea the chances are that the beaches you might like to visit are littered with stuff that was first discarded in your street. Much of the litter dropped in towns and on roads gets washed or blown into rivers to eventually reach the sea.

photo of rubbish piled on a beach
Plastics are choking our oceans
Credit: istock

Plastic pollution and nature

Plastic gets everywhere. It comes in many hazardous shapes and sizes – from single-use drinks bottles to packaging for toys, cosmetics and food.

Turtles mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and eat them. This blocks their systems and causes them to starve.

Even clothes now contain tiny plastic fibres that get washed into soils, waters and wildlife when we do the laundry. Those and other plastics can harm wildlife – and even end up in the fish and seafood we eat.

Building, development and nature

The growth and design of our towns and cities drives inefficient, wasteful use of land. Too many roads and infrastructure schemes are still being routed through precious habitats. The new high speed rail link (HS2) threatens more than 90 irreplaceable ancient woodlands.

photo of roadbuilding through Twyford Down
Motorway extension at Twyford Down, an ancient and precious landscape
Credit: Steve Morgan

Chemicals and nature

The widespread use of artificial pesticides and herbicides is just one reason why current farming methods are a main driver of nature’s decline in the UK.

It is claimed that we need intensive farming to feed the world. But that looks absurd when so much nature is harmed and about a third of food that is grown is wasted in the supply chain, or dumped by consumers.

Invasive species

The health of natural systems is also threatened when invasive non-native species take over from native species.

For example, Himalayan balsam is a lovely plant when it’s in the Himalayas. But in the UK it dominates river banks and crowds out other plants needed by bees, birds and other UK wildlife. Invasive creatures such as the Harlequin ladybird and Asian hornet also prey on native species.

photo of Himalayan Balsam, invasive species, N Yorks
Himalayan balsam is a vigorous species not native to the UK
Credit: Bill Boaden/

Of course, change is unavoidable. And competition between species is part of the natural order of things. Some species do just go extinct – their time is up.

The question is whether this is happening naturally and in a way that maintains a healthy diversity of species. Or is human activity hastening nature’s decline to such an extent that it will no longer furnish us with the fundamentals for a healthy life – clean air, water, food, and a stable climate?

Naturally-occurring forest fires help regenerate forests. But fires caused by a carelessly-discarded cigarette are not the same.

The benefits of protecting nature

There is no silver-bullet solution to halting and then reversing nature’s decline. Turning things around will require lots of actions by lots of players.

The United Nations’ Global Biodiversity Outlook report is clear that “continuing with … our present patterns of behaviour, consumption, production and economic incentives will not allow us to realise the vision of a world with ecosystems capable of meeting human needs into the future.”

The report adds that ending threats to nature would

  • reduce hunger and poverty
  • improve human health
  • support sustainable supplies of energy, food and clean water
  • combat desertification and land degradation
  • reduce our vulnerability to natural and climate change-related disasters.

That sounds like a great deal. Besides which, healthy nature is a prize in itself.

photo of swampland nature reserve with reflected sky
Credit: herbert2512/CC0

Changing the way we live

It’s not inevitable that nature must suffer for us all to make a living. It makes no sense to allow an economy to surge at the expense of nature. If anything, it’s a false promise: our economy and quality of life ultimately depend on a healthy, functioning environment.

The good news is that many millions of people are making it their business to push companies and governments to change their practices and policies, to switch investments from fossil fuels to clean energy and, for example, help bees and pollinators.

Other clever people are exploring ways to make life on Mars possible in case we drop the ball we call home.

Friends of the Earth would rather the rest of us focused on making all life on Earth possible. We have the brains, we have the means and each of us can play a part in making this happen.

Why not join us to help us give nature a better chance?

Join our campaign for a healthy environment