Startling UN biodiversity report is a reminder of the risks Canada faces

Monday's UN report on biodiversity startled many when it said one million species are threatened with extinction across the globe. It's important to remember that Canada is not immune from losing its own biodiversity, experts say.

Habitat loss, climate change put species at risk, says one of report's co-authors

A female southern resident killer whale breaches in the Salish Sea between Washington state and British Columbia. (Monika Wieland Shields/Shutterstock)

Canada, the second-largest country in the world and home to a large assortment of species, is experiencing many of the effects of habitat and species loss highlighted Monday in the UN's first comprehensive report on biodiversity, and experts say that's a concern.

Extinction looms over one million species of plants and animals worldwide, scientists said.

Human activity is changing the way we use our land and oceans. We exploit animals, we pollute, we are driving a changing climate and we are introducing invasive species into ecosystems, whether by accident or not.

According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation, of the roughly 1.8 million identified animal species in the world (it's estimated there could be between five and 20 million species), 140,000 live in Canada, half of which are unidentified.

Among some of the findings of a 2017 report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) were that, between 1970 and 2014, mammals had declined by an average of 43 per cent, grassland birds dropped by 69 per cent and the fish populations had declined by 20 per cent straight across Canada.

Many groups of caribou are threatened across Canada, including woodland caribou. (The Canadian Press)

One of the primary reasons, said Emily Giles, co-author of that report and WWF senior species specialist, is habitat loss.

"Canada is not immune to the losses we're hearing about. It's very easy to think that the things they talk about don't apply here, but they do," Giles said.

"In particular, habitat loss is a really important thing that we need to combat here.  Some of Canada's least-protected areas are also those areas most important to species at risk and are also important for capturing carbon and storing carbon."

And that's happening as our population grows, small towns expand, the urban sprawl continues and the need for more agricultural land increases.

'This is it'

While Monday's report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is alarming, it's not all doom and gloom. But if humans are to mitigate a mass species extinction there will need to be "fundamental, structural change," says one of the report's co-authors.

"The current fight that we're having between provinces and the feds around oilsands, pipelines, climate change and local environmental impacts … is not actually a fight that we should be having," said Kai Chan, a University of British Columbia professor.

While habitat loss is one major driver, another is our changing climate. And we don't have far to look to see its efffects, Chan said.

  • Southern resident killer whales off the British Columbia coast: "That population is on the brink of no return."
  • Mountain and boreal caribou: "It's pretty clear a few of those herds are not going to make it."
  • Melting Arctic permafrost: "There are some really dangerous climate feedbacks there."

Giles said some Canadians may be complacent about the natural world and the importance of biodiversity, in part because our country is so vast, so sparsely populated and with most of its population living in cities. That disconnection with nature can be detrimental from a local scale all the way to a global scale.

But we have to remember how interconnected we are, for example how much we depend on pollinators, specifically bees, for our food. We also depend on marine life to keep our water clean.

Reports like this one and the WWF's are important, Giles said.

"[It] reminds us that nature is the key to sustaining human life as well," she said. "So we can't take it for granted."

Giles said individuals can make a difference, for example by growing native plants in their gardens. Milkweed, for example, can help support monarch butterflies, which are threatened. 

Another important factor, she says, is to have people in charge who are concerned about the environment.

"Vote for people who put environment and nature first," she said.

"The message has never been so urgent, and the message has never been so clear: biodiversity … wildlife loss around the world is truly a global crisis," Giles said.

"It's clear from this report: We can't wait anymore. This is it."

Melting permafrost and ice is visible along the coast of the Mackenzie Delta. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at

With files from The Canadian Press


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