‘The warning lights are flashing.’ Report finds nations failing to protect biodiversity

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Deforestation in Brazil, such as here in the Amazon, has increased in recent years. 

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

A major report card on the state of biodiversity gives failing grades to the world’s nations. The United Nations’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, released this week, concludes that the world has not met ambitious targets set 10 years ago to protect nature. “The warning lights are flashing. We have to recognize that we’re in a planetary emergency,” Andy Purvis, a biodiversity researcher at the Natural History Museum said in a statement.

“We are losing biodiversity and that has very real consequences to people’s health, prosperity, and well-being,” says Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, who was not involved in the report.

There is still time to halt—and even reverse—the loss of biodiversity, the report concludes. But that will require rapid and substantial changes in agriculture, industry, and other activities. “More than anything, it’s telling us we have quite a lot more to do. Not more of the same, but more of the tougher transformational shifts,” says Lina Barrera, head of international policy at Conservation International, an environmental organization. One such change would be including the value of biodiversity in economic decisions, such as infrastructure investment or farm subsidies.

In 2010, the 196 nations that belong to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to 20 goals for preserving flora and fauna, known as the Aichi biodiversity targets. Every few years, CBD has evaluated progress, based on national reports and other sources. This latest Outlook also reflected trends revealed by a major scientific review by several hundred researchers. 

The new assessment finds some bright spots. Fisheries are becoming more sustainable in nations with good management schemes. Invasive species are being eradicated on ever more islands. Perhaps most encouraging, the extent of protected areas has risen substantially to 15% of land and 7% of the ocean (see graphs, below). But those figures are still short of the targets of 17% and 10%, respectively, and Lubchenco notes that only 2.5% of the ocean has been highly protected so far. Overall, nations reported they were on track to meet an average of 34% of their own targets, although many were not as ambitious as the global Aichi targets. They reported progress, for example, on raising awareness about conservation, building research capacity, and creating strategies for protecting species.

It’s not enough, the report says. Only six targets have been even partially reached and some indicators are headed the wrong way. For example, while global pesticide use has been relatively flat, many nations have increased their use of chemicals that harm pollinators. In general, progress is being swamped by growing consumption of en­ergy and materials, and the destruc­tion of habitat by new farms, roads, and dams. As a consequence, biodiversity continues to be lost, the report finds. “Things are not going to change much until we deal with the root issues, and this is much more difficult,” says ecologist Sandra Díaz of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council and the National University of Córdoba.

Observers hope the report’s sobering conclusions will motivate countries to press for more progress and higher goals when they meet in May 2021 to set new CBD targets for 2030. Draft targets already released are “roughly moving in the right direction,” Barrera says. One proposal, for example, calls for protecting 30% of land and marine habitat, up from 10% today. “That is ambitious, but it is absolutely necessary,” Lubchenco says. Achieving the next round of targets will be “very high stakes for everybody,” Díaz says, “not just ecologists and conservationists.”

A lost decade

In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity set 20 global targets for safeguarding nature. None has been achieved; a few trends are headed in the right direction (left), but many are discouraging (right).

200020202010201520050123More agrochemicals usedPesticides (kilograms per hectare), world average20002020201020152005051015%Protected areas increasedLandOcean200020202010201520050246%Species status better knownSpecies assessed20002020201020152005012345Funding for conservation boostedBillions ($ )2000202020102015200500. status declinedExtinction risk of species, global index1 is no concern0 is extinctTargets establishedPortion of habitat protected20002020201020152005012345Habitat loss increasedTropical forest lost (millions of hectares)

GRAPHICS: N. DESAI/SCIENCE; DATA, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2020) based on data from Gannon et al.; Global Forest Watch; FAOSTAT; IUCN and BirdLife International; IUCN; OECD STAT

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