The United Nations has warned that the on-going loss of species should be considered as a wake-up call, as it affects human well-being around the world.

Eight years ago, governments pledged to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, but already it is clear that the pledge will not be met. The expansion of human cities, farming and infrastructure is the main reason. According to a report by BBC News, the UN argues that as natural systems such as forests and wetlands disappear, humanity loses the services they currently provide for free, such as the purification of air and water, protection from extreme weather events and the provision of materials for shelter and fire. The rate of species loss leads some biologists to say that we are in the middle of the Earth’s sixth great extinction, the previous five stemming from natural events as asteroid impacts. Some analyses suggest that nature loss is accelerating rather than decelerating.

“We are facing an extinction crisis,” said Jane Smart, director of the biodiversity conservation group with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “The loss of this beautiful and complex natural diversity that underpins all life on the planet is a serious threat to humankind now and in the future,” she added. The UN hopes some kind of legally-binding treaty to curb biodiversity loss can be agreed at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) summit, held in Japan in October. One element is due to be a long-awaited protocol under which the genetic resources of financially-poor but biodiversity-rich nations can be exploited in a way that brings benefits to all. However, given the lack of appetite for legally-binding environmental agreements that key countries displayed at last month’s climate summit in Copenhagen, it is unclear just what kind of deal might materialise on biodiversity. The UN has been pursuing new ways of raising public awareness on the issue, including collaborating with the Cameroon football team taking part in the African Nations Cup finals. Many environment organisations will be running special programmes and mounting events during this year, which is the International Year of Biodiversity.

“The big opportunity during the International Year of Biodiversity is for governments to do for biodiversity what they failed to do for climate change in Copenhagen,” said Simon Stuart, a senior science advisor to Conservation International and chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “They have the chance to make a major difference; and key to this will be halting species extinctions, the most irreversible aspect of biodiversity loss,” he added.