One-in-five countries' ecosystems at risk of collapse - report

Ecosystems in one-in-five countries around the world are in danger of collapse, taking much of the economy with it, a new report has found. 

South Africa, Israel and one of our major trading partners - Australia - are among the most at risk, thanks to "deteriorating biodiversity and ecosystems".

The report, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: A business case for re/insurance, was produced by Switzerland reinsurance company Swiss Re at the end of September. Its primary aim was to give insurers more information about the risks the declining state of the environment posed to their clients and help them set premiums. But it's stark findings have made headlines outside of the industry.

"A staggering fifth of countries globally - 20 percent - are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to a decline in biodiversity and related beneficial services," Swiss Re said.

Countries particularly at risk have a "heavy dependence on agricultural sectors". That might sound like New Zealand, but compared to developing countries, we don't. The report finds New Zealand has a relatively low dependence - just 0.36, where zero is the lowest and one the highest (that honour going to Kenya). We also have one of the most intact ecosystems - coming in 12th out of the 195 countries ranked.

Eighteen percent of the New Zealand ecosystem is "very high" in quality, and another 24 percent "high" or moderately high, the report found. Just 2 percent is considered "fragile". 

Australia on the other hand is doing poorly - just over a third of its ecosystem is in a fragile state, and 2 percent intact. Luckily its economy has a slightly lower reliance on nature than ours. 

The countries with the most fragile ecosystems are Malta, Israel, Bahrain, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Greece, Australia, Singapore and India. The economies of Kazakhstan and India are particularly at risk as ecosystem quality declines, the report said.

South Africa and Australia are let down by their water scarcity and lack of coastal protection. Half of Australia's Great Barrier Reef died off between 1986 and 2012 for example, with climate change and other human impacts largely to blame.

"Biodiversity loss poses a threat to economic sectors that depend on the provision of ecosystem services for their operations."

At the other end of the scale with intact ecosystems are Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Canada, Malaysia, Latvia and Finland. 

"Brazil and Indonesia enjoy the highest percentage of intact ecosystems within the G20, however, the countries' strong economic dependency on natural resources highlights the importance of sustainable development and conservation to the long-term sustainability of their economies," said Swiss Re. 

How countries are doing.
How countries are doing. Photo credit: Swiss Re

The company said if more isn't done to protect the environment, more places could end up facing the same fate as the Aral Sea.

"During the Soviet era, the Aral Sea was a thriving economy: thousands of people lived in the region, making a living from the surrounding natural resources," the report said.

"The fishing industry supplied the country with nearly two out of every ten fish while the water feeding the lake supported agriculture. When this water was diverted to irrigate fields in other regions, inflows to the lake declined and it started to disappear.

"Today the sea as it was - despite some successful restoration efforts - is all but gone... The Aral Sea shows what can happen when a key ecosystem collapses."