Global Biodiversity Is in Free Fall

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Global Biodiversity Is in Free Fall

Global efforts to address the steep, ongoing loss of biodiversity through a series of specified targets have failed, according to a dire assessment released by the United Nations today.

The 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were established under the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity at a conference in Japan in 2010. Their aim was to protect the world’s imperiled flora and fauna by 2020. Without such intervention, according to the U.N., roughly one million species could disappear within several decades, widening what scientists have coined the Holocene extinction: the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, driven by human activity. Ultimately, 170 countries and regions agreed to the targets and to create their own national conservation strategies that mirrored or related to the Aichi goals. But according to the just released fifth edition of the U.N.’s Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO), the international community as a whole has failed to meet even a single biodiversity target by the deadline, and no nation has successfully met all 20 within its own borders.

Many human activities can shrink biodiversity, including deforestation, pollution and the introduction of invasive species. The Aichi goals to counter losses were equally diverse. But experts say the participating countries have failed, in large part, because they have struggled to address conservation while focusing on their economies and rising populations.

The failure to halt biodiversity loss draws stark parallels with nations’ lack of political will to keep global warming below an increase of two degrees Celsius, as was pledged in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The U.S. will officially exit that agreement on November 4, and the country has never ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity. And although China has made great strides in moving away from fossil fuels, its $6-trillion development project, the Belt and Road Initiative, poses serious risk to the flora and fauna inside and outside its borders. In light of such opposing interests, David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity and an author of the new GBO, says the outcomes of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets are, unfortunately, “in line with what we expected,” particularly when considering the fourth GBO, released in 2014, which warned of insufficient progress.

“Frankly, we lost some time at the start of the decade as countries developed their own national targets,” Cooper says. By mid-decade, countries were finally making gains but not enough to meet the deadline. “We need to think about what we can do to help countries get a faster start and build on the momentum we have now,” Cooper adds.

He also blames perverse incentives. Although many nations successfully mobilized financial resources to aid biodiversity conservation, the funds were undermined by factors such as subsidies supporting fossil fuels and overfishing, Cooper says. “Progress has been made, but it has been insufficient to address the underlying drivers of [biodiversity] loss: climate change and exploitation, which are driven by broader consumption patterns,” he adds. For example, subsidies linked to the destruction of rain forests in Brazil and Indonesia are far greater than the amount spent on reforestation efforts.

Although countries did not meet the Aichi goals outright, many made decent headway. According to the fifth GBO, only 11 percent of national targets saw no significant progress. Six targets were partially achieved by the 2020 deadline. Target 11, which pushed countries to protect 17 percent of surface and subsurface water and inland water areas, as well as 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, received significant attention and arguably resulted in the most concrete changes. In terms of surface area alone, Target 11 will likely be reached globally by the end of the year, with nearly 10 percent of countries surpassing their goal. Yet critics say many newly established protected areas do not focus on the most species-rich regions. Rather they were implemented wherever it was easiest for governments to cordon off land or water.

The new GBO noted other progress as well. “Indonesia has clamped down on illegal and unreported fishing, which has generated a lot of improvement in fish stocks in its water,” Cooper says. But the steps that that have been achieved are still not enough to stem the tide of biodiversity loss. Between 1970 and 2016, the average size of wildlife populations declined by an astounding 68 percent, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 2020 Living Planet Report. If the trajectory remains unchanged, biodiversity will continue to decline until 2050 and beyond because of unsustainable production and consumption of natural resources, population growth and other ongoing trends.

Scientists and policy makers are now weighing how best to move forward and slow biodiversity loss as quickly as possible. In a study published on September 9 in Science Advances, researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing proposed that countries target “cost-effective zones (CEZs),” which encompass high conservation value with little existing human impact. They argued that current conservation strategies pay too much attention to areas where politicians are unlikely to favor conservation measures, such as farmland. To identify zones suitable for protection, the researchers overlaid global biodiversity maps with those showing areas of low human impact. As of 2020, less than a quarter of these CEZs were protected.


“Six countries take up over half of the global CEZs—the Russian Federation, Australia, Canada, Brazil, China and the United States,” notes Rui Yang, a landscape architect at Tsinghua University and lead author of the study.

Judicious land-use planning is vital, but expanding human populations and subsequent pressure on food systems will make planning an even bigger challenge, according to David Leclère, an environmental scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. In a Nature paper published last week, he and his colleagues found that if we made a sustainable increase in agricultural production and trade, reduced food waste and switched to plant-based diets, we could avoid more than two thirds of future biodiversity losses, with wildlife populations beginning to increase around 2050. But Leclère cautions that climate change could throw a wrench in those projections.

“Although climate change is currently affecting two to three times fewer species than land use change, we know threats from climate change will increase in the future,” he says. “If we take the most pessimistic projections on climate change and its impacts, it is possible that bending the curve [of biodiversity loss] will not be feasible at all.”

Others take issue with the ethos of international conservation policies entirely. In a Conservation Letters study published in April, researchers reviewed international biodiversity and sustainability policies and found that the majority also advocated for economic growth, despite substantial evidence that such growth directly contributes to biodiversity loss. They concluded that “inadequate attention is paid to the question of how growth can be decoupled from biodiversity loss.”

“We have growth for growth’s sake,” says Katharine Farrell, an ecological economist at Rosario University in Colombia and a co-author of the study. “What we need is an economy not based on the accumulation of money but the living logic of well-being.” She observes, however, that there are “huge vested interests associated with economic productivity that is dependent on ecological destruction. These interests are going to be losers if we shift our economic structures to something based on ecological benefits.”

Cooper acknowledges that there has not been strong evidence of absolute decoupling. In addition to looking at ways to improve production and consumption of resources, he says an overall reduction in demand needs to be examined as well. “Much of the world does not have enough, whether it is food, water or materials,” Cooper says. “That means equity is going to be an important part of the equation moving forward.”

The Convention on Biological Diversity is currently ironing out its Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will be adopted at its next meeting in Kunming, China, in May 2021. The hope is that the framework will create a new set of biodiversity targets to remedy the failures of the Aichi goals and turn things around before it is too late.

“Action is needed now,” Cooper says. “These next 10 years, just as they are vital for climate change, are also vital for the biodiversity agenda if we’re going to prevent the sixth mass extinction.”

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