12/05/2013
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The true cost of climate change?

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Willow Ptarmigan is one of many upland species predicted to become extinct in the southern parts of their ranges and global warming increases. Photo: Peter Wilton (commons.wikimedia.org).
Willow Ptarmigan is one of many upland species predicted to become extinct in the southern parts of their ranges and global warming increases. Photo: Peter Wilton (commons.wikimedia.org).
Accelerating world climate change will radically decrease two thirds of common plants and half the animals, says new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Research published today in the journal Nature Climate Change look at 50,000 globally widespread and common species, and found that two thirds of the plants and half of the animals will lose more than half of their climatic range by 2080, if nothing is done to reduce the amount of global warming and slow it down. This means that geographical ranges of common plants and animals will shrink globally, and biodiversity will decline almost everywhere. Almost two thirds of common plants and half the animals could see a dramatic decline this century due to climate change.

Plants, reptiles and particularly amphibians are expected to be at highest risk. Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia and Australia would lose the most species of plants and animals, and a major loss of plant species is projected for North Africa, Central Asia and South-eastern Europe.

However, acting quickly to mitigate climate change could reduce losses by 60 per cent and buy an additional 40 years for species to adapt. This is because mitigation would slow and then stop global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times (taken to be before 1765). Without mitigation, global temperatures could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Dr Warren said: “While there has been much research on the effect of climate change on rare and endangered species, little has been known about how an increase in global temperature will affect more common species. This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems.

“Our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides.

“We looked at the effect of rising global temperatures, but other symptoms of climate change such as extreme weather events, pests, and diseases mean that our estimates are probably conservative. Animals in particular may decline more as our predictions will be compounded by a loss of food from plants. There will also be a knock-on effect for humans because these species are important for things like water and air purification, flood control, nutrient cycling, and eco-tourism.

"The good news is that our research provides crucial new evidence of how swift action to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases can prevent the biodiversity loss by reducing the amount of global warming to 2 degrees Celsius rather than 4 degrees. This would also buy time – up to four decades - for plants and animals to adapt to the remaining 2 degrees of climate change.”

The research team quantified the benefits of acting now to mitigate climate change and found that up to 60 per cent of the projected climatic range loss for biodiversity can be avoided.

Information on the current distributions of the species used in this research came from the datasets shared online by hundreds of volunteers, scientists and natural history collections through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

The study was led by Dr Rachel Warren from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Collaborators include Dr Jeremy Van Der Wal at James Cook University in Australia and Dr Jeff Price, also at UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre. The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
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