Massive urban expansion threatens natural habitats

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City expansion has accelerated in recent decades, so much so that, by 2050, we could be creating a city the size of London every seven weeks if current trends continue, a new study warns.

Urban growth presents extreme challenges to biodiversity and ecosystem services due to the ongoing loss and fragmentation of habitats, says Burak Güneralp, assistant professor of geography at Texas A&M University.

“The message is clear: We have to take action and we must do it quickly. The challenges presented by urban expansion for conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services we all depend on are only going to get more intense as the world continues to urbanize,” Güneralp says.

The findings, which appear in a Nature Conservancy report, show that by 2050, there will be 2.4 billion more people in cities. This means:

  • Humanity will urbanize an area of more than 460,000 additional square miles, larger than the entire country of Colombia.
  • People could destroy more than 70,000 square miles of natural habitat by 2030.
  • Natural habitats likely to be lost to urban growth store an estimated 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This would be the equivalent of the annual carbon dioxide emissions from 931 million cars on the road.
  • Urban expansion could especially affect coastal areas and by 2030 researchers predict urban areas will more than double, increasing the number of those urban dwellers who depend on protection from natural ecosystems to more than 330 million people.

Countries expected to lose the most natural habitat due to urban growth include the United States, Brazil, Nigeria, and China.

Solutions to the problems could include more effective integration of local governments in national planning efforts; encouraging and empowering cities to incorporate protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services in their planning efforts; leveraging the work of international institutions such as the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environmental Facility; and coordinating the work of the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity to find ways to combat these future problems.

“Cities have been called one of mankind’s greatest inventions,” Güneralp says. “But we should not be blindsided by the potentially detrimental impacts of the ongoing rapid urban expansion, not even in the US or in Texas. In fact, this unprecedented urban growth presents us with a fleeting opportunity to act so that it takes place in a way that safeguards biodiversity and ecosystem services that are so critical for human wellbeing.”

The researchers will present the report at the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt.

Source: Texas A&M University