What you need to know about the latest WWF Living Planet Index

What you need to know about the latest WWF Living Planet Index

Eagle image by martellostudio via Shutterstock.

WWF released the latest edition of its landmark Living Planet Index this week, which tracks more than 10,000 vertebrate populations across more than 3,000 species. The report painted a bleak picture of the current state of the world's wildlife, but said declining numbers can be reversed if businesses stop behaving as if they live in a limitless world and take account of environmental factors in their decision-making.

"By taking more from our ecosystems and natural processes than can be replenished, we are jeopardizing our future," wrote Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, in a foreword to the Living Planet Index. "Nature conservation and sustainable development go hand-in-hand. They are not only about preserving biodiversity and wild places, but just as much about safeguarding the future of humanity — our well-being, economy, food security and social stability — indeed, our very survival."

Here are some key statistics businesses should take account of when planning for the long-term:

On average, vertebrate species populations are about half the size they were 40 years ago. Freshwater species have seen the largest decline since 1970, plummeting 76 percent, while marine and terrestrial populations each dropped 30 percent.

The effect is disproportionately felt in poorer countries. Low-income countries show a 58 percent decline in biodiversity, compared to an 18 percent drop in middle-income nations and an apparent 10 percent improvement among the richest economies.

This improvement is partly due to wealthier nations being able to divert more resources to conservation, but also a result of their already having wiped out many of their most vulnerable species during industrialization prior to 1970. However, industrialized nations are still accused of "outsourcing" biodiversity loss to the rest of the world: more than a third of the internationally traded crops and livestock goods produced on land cleared of forests went to EU countries from 1990 to 2008.

Habitat loss, change and degradation make up almost 45 percent of the primary causes of decline for wildlife populations, just ahead of exploitation through hunting and fishing at 37 percent. Climate change, at 7.1 percent, is the next most common primary threat, but is expected to grow significantly in importance over the coming years.

We need 1.5 Earths to meet the demands we currently make on nature. If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets. If we consumed the same as the U.S., we would need 3.9 planets. South Korea consumes at a rate of 2.5 planets, while South African consumption patterns require 1.4 planets.

The threats are by no means limited to wildlife: More than a third of the world's population, or about 2.7 billion people, live in river basins that experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year.

So what's the damage? Well, more than 60 percent of the vital services provided by nature are in global decline because of overexploitation. Forests provide shelter, livelihoods, water, fuel and food to 2 billion people directly and help regulate the planetary climate — forest loss and degradation is estimated to cost the world economy $2 trillion to $4.5 trillion each year. Fisheries support more than 660 million jobs globally and are a significant source of protein, particularly in developing countries — if threats to oceans are not abated, the economic losses could reach $428 billion by 2050.

Why businesses should care: a U.N.-backed study found the world's top 3,000 businesses have annual externalities of almost $2.1 trillion. Meanwhile, in 2008 environmental damage cost $6.6 trillion, or 11 percent of global GDP, and the annual cost of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste and depleted resources could reach $28.6 trillion by 2050.

This article originally appeared at Business Green. Eagle image by martellostudio via Shutterstock.