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One million species are facing extinction and ecosystem decline: Here’s how to help


This week sees another alarming update into species extinction. A United Nations report, prepared by hundreds of global experts, reveals that one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. What’s worse is that we’re to blame, as the biodiversity threats have been directly linked to human activity.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: read on to find out which careers can help tackle ecosystem decline, from environmental science to engineering and even data analytics.

The biggest ecosystem study of its kind

This is the most comprehensive global impact report written to date, with over 400 expert authors from more than 50 countries. It’s unique because it evaluates the direct link between global economic growth and its negative impacts on nature and it also discusses how we all stand to be negatively impacted by loss of biodiversity.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” said the Chair of the authoring organisation, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Sir Robert Watson told The Washington Post. “The bigger issue is the way it will affect human well-being, as we’ve said many times — food, water, energy, human health.”

African penguins have declined by 95% in the last century. Image by Charles Bergman.

Causes & consequences of changing nature 

The biggest drivers of the changes in the global ecosystem (in order of relative global impact) are:

(1) changes in land and sea use

(2) direct exploitation of organisms

(3) climate change

(4) pollution

(5) invasive alien species.

Even if global warming is capped at 2 degrees, the slippery slope of trickle-down effects leading to loss of habitable land and warming oceans would be devastating for biodiversity. If the temperature rises just 2 degrees, 5% of animal species – about one million species – would be at risk of extinction.

Other consequences to humans could include food shortages from reduced crop yields and overfishing, lack of access to clean drinking water due to pollution and the dangers posed by increasingly extreme weather events (think hurricanes, droughts and floods).


What’s to be done?

Don’t despair though, because the most positive news to come out of the report is that we can still help prevent these threats.

“[Now] we have a much better understanding of the links between climate change, biodiversity, and food security and water security,” said Sir Watson. “The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.” he said.

Careers that can make a difference

The Report makes it clear that change needs to come from all sectors, whether industry, government or academia. The recommendations we need to take on board globally include promoting sustainable agricultural and fishing practices, managing water resources and strengthening conservation and ecological protection measures.

Luckily, there are heaps of careers that can help preserve fragile ecological systems and fight climate change, and every contribution makes a difference.

  1. Environmental science

UTS researcher Emma Camp examines coral on a research diving expedition.

This interdisciplinary branch of science brings together diverse disciplines like ecology, biology, zoology, geology, climatology, physics and chemistry to address some of the most complex environmental issues.

Award-winning UTS researcher Dr Emma Camp, who has an environmental science and chemistry background, has dedicated her research career to uncovering the secrets of “extreme coral”, which are thriving in increasingly warmer and more acidic oceans. She’s uncovering what allows these super coral to survive in order to save other species of coral.

Another eco-focused scientist is ANSTO’s Dr Tom Cresswell, who’s investigating the effects of coal and gold mining runoff on the local ecosystems and animals, helping to protect precious local ecosystems from the consequences of human pollution.

ANSTO research scientist Tom Cresswell analysing water samples.

2. Data science

How can data help save the planet, you ask? Heaps of ways! For example, a recent global research effort led by ANU ecologist Benjamin Scheele used large-scale data analytics to assess how populations of endangered frogs are declining, giving ecology researchers the big picture on how best to address extinction threats.

Animal Science PhD researcher Kate Farquharson also uses data analysis for conservation, studying the data collected on captive bred animals in order to identify patterns that can help conservationists.

Statistics is also a key player in solving global problems. Statistics researcher Dr Emi Tanaka at the Uni of Sydney uses agri-stats to help farmers boost food production, while QUT statistical data scientist Dr Paul Wu has led a study into predicting when coastal dredging is least likely to stress seagrass meadows – which provide vital shelter and food to marine life, including dugongs.

3. Public policy

One of the biggest take-away messages of the UN Report is the need to establish more environmentally friendly policies. There are heaps of roles in federal and state government which focus on minimising the impact of government and industry activities on the environment.

QUT ecology graduate Emma Carter’s work at Biosecurity Queensland has included plant pest management in the Plant Biosecurity division, while Sarah Campbell, a public policy adviser for the federal Department of Energy and Environment, uses her chemistry and biology knowledge to advise on a broad range of legislative issues.

4. Engineering

Jess Allen testing fuel cells in the lab.

Engineers are coming up with innovative solutions to address some of the most urgent environmental issues, such as a global demand for clean energy and addressing plastic waste and pollution. Some up-and-coming future engineers already have some amazing inventions up their sleeve, from Minh Nga Nguyen’s water filter/plant fertiliser hybrid made from plastic waste to Angelina Aurora’s biodegradable plastic.

In the clean energy sector, chemical engineer Dr Jessica Allen wants to make clean, green energy simpler with novel fuel cells, while mechanical engineering graduate Alex Post sees our energy future in solar thermal power.

Engineers are also coding their way to a renewable energy future, like software engineering student Sam Macpherson, whose algorithms are helping smooth out the intermittent supply of energy from solar panels into the electricity grid.

There’s even more planet-saving career options here:

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