The UN’s ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals include a target to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. The SDGs have generated a great deal of comment, with questions raised as to whether the lofty aspirations can be turned into realistic policies. An article in The Lancet even dismissed the SDGs as nothing more than “fairy tales”.
So is halting biodiversity loss a fairy tale?
“Biodiversity” refers to the diversity of life on Earth. It includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems. There are any number of statistics that confirm its decline across the globe. For instance, the Red List of threatened species, developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identifies 22,784 that are at risk of extinction – almost 30% of the species that have been assessed. By other measures, habitats continue to be destroyed and degraded, and population sizes of most wild species are in decline.
This is bad news not only for nature lovers but for all of us since we rely on biodiversity to deliver many crucial services such as pollinating crops and providing medicines.
By projecting current trends forward in time, a study published in Science last year concluded we are already on course to miss most of the international community’s other main targets for biodiversity – the “Aichi Targets” – which were adopted in 2010 under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and aspire to improve things by 2020. So why might the new SDG biodiversity target be any more achievable than those that have gone before?
The inclination is to be extremely pessimistic, but there are some reasons to be hopeful.
The same Science paper also looked at indicators of societal responses to the biodiversity crisis. Here the trends are much more in the right direction. Coverage of protected areas is increasing across the planet, sustainable management practices in industries such as fishing and forestry are taking root, and public awareness of biodiversity issues is rising.
There has been real progress in the policy arena. To date 184 of 196 parties to the CBD have developed National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, which set out actions such as promoting laws and providing funds to help achieve the convention’s goals. The establishment in 2012 of the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) also provides an important new mechanism to inject sound scientific advice into policy making.
In business as well, biodiversity conservation and the related concept of “natural capital” are becoming mainstream. For instance, the Natural Capital Coalition is developing the economic case for valuing natural ecosystems and includes buy-in from some of the biggest players in business, accountancy and consulting.
And the financial industry is moving toward more responsible investing. The UN Principles for Responsible Investment, which commit investors to act in accordance with conventions such as the CBD, now has almost 1,400 signatories who manage assets with a combined total of US$59 trillion.
These are major positive changes that have come to the fore in the past decade or so. And there are conservation success stories that illustrate how such changes can turn things around for biodiversity. For example, the latest update to the IUCN Red List reports that conservation action has bolstered populations of the Iberian lynx, which had only 52 mature individuals in 2002. And the Guadalupe fur seal, which had twice in the past been thought to have gone extinct due to hunting, is also making a comeback.
More generally, there is an overall positive trend among populations of almost 1,000 bird and mammal species across much of the northern hemisphere.
These instances of good news still leave us a long way from halting global biodiversity loss. I don’t mean for a moment to underestimate the magnitude of the problem. Habitat loss, climate change, pollution, overexploitation and the spread of invasive species all remain huge threats that will require extraordinary efforts to tackle.
But time has not yet run out. Although many plants and animals are threatened with extinction, we have in fact lost only a few percent of known species over recent centuries. It is heartening that there is still an astonishing amount left to save.
It will take time to slow and turn around the juggernaut that is biodiversity loss, and everyone must pull in the same direction in order to shift course. The period over which the new SDGs will run, from now until 2030, will be absolutely crucial for making this happen.
There are indications that things are beginning to turn around. Hints that we can do this. It would be a big mistake to dismiss the biodiversity target as a fairy tale.
And anyway, fairy tales usually have happy endings, don’t they?
Richard Pearson is a Reader in the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, which is a research centre within the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at UCL. Richard completed his Doctorate in biogeography at the University of Oxford in 2004. From 2005-2013 he was a postdoc and then research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Richard Pearson’s research focuses on the biogeography of animals and plants: Where are species distributed? Why are they distributed there? How do distributions change over time? Deepening our understanding of these questions requires a melding of ecological and evolutionary theory, and will be crucial for developing effective conservation strategies in a time of rapid global environmental change. He addresses these challenges using modern computational technologies, including Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing, and ecological modelling. Key topics of interest include the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, the relationship between ecological niches and geographic distributions, speciation processes, and targeting field surveys to accelerate the discovery of unknown species and populations.
Richard Pearson has been identified as one of the world’s most Highly Cited Researchers in the field of Environment/Ecology (Thomson Reuters 2014). His research has been funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, US National Science Foundation, NASA, and European Commission. Richard is a Subject Editor for the journal Global Change Biology and an Associate Editor for Journal of Biogeography. He serves on the steering committee for the IUCN Species Survival Commission Climate Change Specialist Group, is a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group II, Fifth Assessment Report), and is a member of the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s Peer Review College.
Alongside his research and teaching, Pearson engages in communicating biodiversity research to a general audience, including publishing a non-specialist book on the impact of climate change on biodiversity (Driven to Extinction, 2011).