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Human activity pushing Earth towards 'sixth mass species extinction,' report warns

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Human activity is degrading the landscape of the Earth, driving species to extinction and worsening the effects of climate change, says an IPBES report released Monday. It adds that land loss and drought will displace at least 50 million people by 2050, and as many as 700 million over the coming four decades.

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  • The Earth is rapidly losing its capacity to sustain diverse life due to human activity, scientists warn
  • Monday's coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by the U.S., Canada and members of the EU brings the number recently sent packing to more than 125
  • The first non-stop flight connecting Australia and the U.K. touches down at Heathrow airport
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

A planet in peril

The Earth is rapidly losing its capacity to support human life, warns a new report.

Human activity is degrading the landscape, driving species to extinction and worsening the effects of climate change, it says.

Two-fifths of humanity — some 3.2 billion people — are already in danger, warns the study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), released at a conference in Colombia this morning.

A tractor scatters dust as it moves across a field on a farm near Tifton, Ga. A report released Monday says less than a quarter of the planet remains untouched by human activity, and at current rates of expansion and exploitation, that figure will fall to less than 10 per cent by 2050. (Gene Blythe/Associated Press)
The peer-reviewed assessment, produced over three years by 100 experts from 45 countries, says that land loss and drought will displace at least 50 million people by 2050, and as many as 700 million over the coming four decades.

Less than a quarter of the planet remains untouched by human activity, but at current rates of expansion and exploitation, that figure will fall to less than 10 per cent by 2050.

"Human activities [are] pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction," professor Robert Scholes, the co-chair of the assessment, said Monday. "Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth."

A section of the Amazon rain forest in Mato Grosso state in western Brazil is seen bordered by deforested land prepared for the planting of soybeans in 2015. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)
Some of the IPBES findings:
  • An 87 per cent reduction in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54 per cent lost since 1900
  • A 50 per cent decrease in renewable freshwater available per person since the 1960s
  • A transformation of 95 per cent of North American tall grass prairies into human-dominated landscapes
  • Declining coral reef cover, with just 10 per cent remaining alive in 2003
  • The galloping exploitation of the Amazon forest has seen 17 per cent of the landscape turned over to settlement and agriculture

The underlying causes are largely economic, says the report, which blames both the developed world's "high-consumption lifestyle," and exploding populations in the poorer parts of the globe.

One of the studies incorporated into the assessment found that 71 per cent of humanity now lives in areas where biodiversity loss throws "the ability of ecosystems to support human societies" into question.

A Black and White Ruffed Lemur clings to a branch in a sanctuary near Pletteberg Bay, South Africa. Common to Madagascar, it is currently classified as endangered by the World Conservation Union. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Keeping all of us alive over the long term will take a coordinated effort, says Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES.

"Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together."

Pulling up the welcome mat

The Russian Foreign Ministry is going to need a few more chairs in the cafeteria.

Today's coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by the United States, Canada and members of the European Union brings the number sent packing back to Moscow to more than 125 in little more than a week.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland at a House of Commons press conference in Ottawa on March 19, when the House unanimously adopted a motion blaming Russia for a 'despicable' nerve-agent attack in Britain. On Monday, she announced Ottawa was expelling several Russian diplomats. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
The protests over Russia's apparent involvement in the nerve agent poisoning of ex-intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury on March 4 are attention grabbing:

The moves are accompanied by some decidedly undiplomatic language.

"The nerve agent attack in Salisbury, on the soil of Canada's close partner and ally, is a despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds," Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement Monday morning.

The flag flies outside the Embassy of the Russian Federation to Canada in Ottawa on Monday, March 26, 2018.
The flag flies outside the Embassy of the Russian Federation to Canada in Ottawa on Monday. The Canadian government announced that four Russian diplomats were being expelled in response to the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
"This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behaviour by Russia, including complicity with the Assad‎ regime, the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns," she added.

But history suggests the expulsions are unlikely to have much of an effect.

Russia and the West have been engaging in periodic diplomatic house-cleanings for decades now, both during and since the Cold War.

Embassy staff and children leave Russia's Embassy in London on March 20. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
In March of 2001, for example, President George W. Bush expelled more than 50 Russian diplomats in response to the unmasking of FBI agent Robert Hanssen as a longtime Kremlin spy.

"I was presented with the facts, I made the decision, it was the right thing to do," Bush told reporters at the time, even as he expressed confidence that the U.S. could "have good relations" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Back in 1986, Ronald Reagan ended up expelling 80 Soviet diplomats in an escalating game of chicken over staff sizes at the U.S. and Soviet embassies, and the number of alleged spies working at each mission.

When another anti-Putin émigré, Alexander Litvinenko, was fatally poisoned in 2007, Britain reacted by sending home four Russians.

The Russian Embassy in Paris is seen on Monday. France's foreign ministry says French authorities have decided to expel four Russian diplomats by next week, in show of solidarity with Britain. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)
And in 1985, there were tit-for-tat ejections — 31 from each embassy — following the defection of Oleg Gordievksy, a senior KGB agent, to London. (He, too, would later fall ill under mysterious circumstances.)

Canada has also played the game, with the Harper government expelling two diplomats and two technical staff after the January 2012 arrest of Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle, a Canadian military intelligence officer and confessed Russian spy.

British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home (left) with his US counterpart Dean Rusk (centre) and Andrei Gromyko of Russia, pictured during a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 1963. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
And then again in April 2014, when Canada and Russia each sent home a diplomat amid tensions over the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine.

But the largest action against the Russians remains the U.K.'s 1971 expulsion of 90 Soviets, and its barring of 15 others. The move by Edward Heath's government came after a KGB defector let them know that up to one-fifth of the 550 Russian "diplomats" in Britain were actually spies.

"Known targets during the last few years have included the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence; and on the commercial side, the Concorde, the Bristol 'Olympus 593' aero-engine, nuclear energy projects and computer electronics," says a now-declassified secret cabinet memo.

Jeffrey Paul Delisle, left, leaves court in Halifax on Oct. 10, 2012. The Canadian naval intelligence officer sold top-secret allied information to the Russians. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
Although the Soviets were anything but contrite.

In a meeting in New York, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, raged at his British counterpart Alec Douglas-Home over the "complete fabrication" and "hooligan-like acts of the British police."

Not unlike the reaction to today's expulsions by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"We consider this step as unfriendly and not serving the tasks and interests of establishing the causes and finding the perpetrators of the incident that took place on March 4 in Salisbury," reads a statement released this morning. "There will be a mirror-like response."

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The long, long haul flight

The world is shrinking.

The inaugural non-stop flight connecting Australia and the U.K. touched down at London's Heathrow airport yesterday morning, 17 hours and two minutes after it took off from Perth.

A Qantas' 787 Dreamliner takes off on the inaugural direct flight from Perth to London on Sunday, the first regular service to connect the two continents directly. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
The new, regularly scheduled Qantas flight is about three hours faster than the traditional version, which featured a stop to refuel or change planes in the Middle East.

It's a significant improvement from the original 1935 "kangaroo route," which made 31 stops and took 12-and-a-half days.

The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner flight was packed with VIPs, including the airline's CEO Alan Joyce and Mark McGowan, the Premier of Western Australia. And there was even a motley welcoming party for the 200 or so bleary-eyed passengers.

The 14,498 kilometre flight now ranks as the world's second-longest, behind Qatar Airways' Doha-to-Auckland, New Zealand, direct service at 14,529 km.

It's also a harbinger of a coming evolution in air travel, the ultra-long-haul flight. The new generation of fuel-sipping jets like the Dreamliner, with a range of 14,800 km, has opened up the possibility of direct connections between 170 cities that were too far apart — or too costly — for older, less-efficient passenger planes to link.

The first ultra-long-range Airbus A350-900, with the capacity to fly almost 18,000 km non-stop, rolled off the assembly line in Toulouse, France, earlier this month. The plane is one of seven ordered by Singapore Airlines, which plans to relaunch a direct 19-hour, 15,348 km service to New York City, a flight that was discontinued in 2013, because the four-engine Airbus A340s were proving economically infeasible amid soaring fuel prices.

Qantas captain Lisa Norman prepares to board the Qantas 787 Dreamliner for the flight from Perth to London. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
Qantas, which by virtue of geography covers greater distances that almost any other carrier, has plans to use the eight 787-9s it has ordered to open up other new, direct routes to Paris, Cape Town, Rio and Frankfurt, luring lucrative business passengers with the time savings and reduced hassles.

The "Holy Grail" for airlines remains a plane that can cover up to 20,000 km affordably.

Last summer, Qantas launched Project Sunrise, calling on Boeing and Airbus to develop aircraft that will allow it to fly direct from the cities on Australia's east coast to London or Paris by 2022.

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan. left, goes through a security check at Perth Airport prior to the inaugural Qantas 787 Dreamliner flight from Perth to London. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
A non-stop Sydney to London fight, a distance of 17,016 km, would cut about four hours off the current 24-hour travel time.   

"We've been waiting 97 years to be able to fly direct from Sydney and Melbourne," Qantas CEO Joyce told reporters last June. "We do believe aircraft technology is going to be our friend into the future."

Quote of the moment

"I was shouting into the phone, telling her to get out, but there was nothing I could do — the fire was in front of me."

- Alexander Lillevyali, a Russian father who lost three daughters in a deadly blaze at a Siberian shopping mall yesterday. One of them called his cellphone to say that they could smell smoke, but couldn't exit the cinema they were in because the doors were locked.

An aerial view of the fire at the Siberian shopping centre in Kemerovo on Sunday in which 64 people, many of them children, perished. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • Ottawa making it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone, heroin (CBC)
  • Catalan's ex-president arrested, to appear in court in Germany (Guardian)
  • Half of Alberta's forests could disappear due to climate change, fires: study (CBC)
  • Ten year 'fake news' jail term proposed in Malaysia (Telegraph)
  • 'Sack them all': Aussie media slam cricket team over cheating scandal (Sky News)
  • China's rain-making network is three times the size of Spain (SCMP)
  • Flat-Earther's steam-powered rocket lofts him 1,875 feet above Mojave Desert (LA Times)
  • World's first David Bowie statue unveiled (BBC)

Today in history

March 26, 1997: The Bre-X bubble bursts

The terse news release alluded to the "strong possibility" that a minor Calgary mining company's claims of having discovered the world's richest gold deposit might have been "overstated." As it turned out, it wasn't a mistake -- it was fraud. There was no gold hidden deep in the Indonesian jungle, just salted core samples. And many who rode the penny stock to millionaire status saw their fortunes disappear in a single day of trading.

The Bre-X bubble bursts in 1997

27 years ago
Duration 2:43
Featured VideoBre-X shareholders are shocked to learn that there may be no gold in the Indonesian deposits that made company stock soar. Aired on March, 26, 1997 on CBC's The National.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.