SDGs: “Current assault on nature is threatening human survival – transformative change is needed”

Unprecedented intergovernmental scientific report joins public outcry for urgent action on the biodiversity crisis, saying business as usual is no longer an option.

A major new global assessment provides a wake-up call to decision-makers: we are not on track to meet universal goals for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Individual successes show that we have the knowledge and tools to turn things around, but transformative change, through stronger and sustained political commitment, is urgently needed to safeguard and restore the natural ecosystems on which we depend.

In the UK, the brief respite from endless Brexit discussion over the Easter parliamentary recess coincided with an explosion in the public conscious of something rather more important – the state of our planet and the very survival of humanity as we know it.  In recent weeks we’ve had daily news headlines on the Extinction Rebellion protest blocking the streets of London, Sir David Attenborough explaining the science behind climate change on prime-time television and 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg meeting with party leaders in Parliament, all flagging the need for urgent action to tackle the interlinked issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse.

Across the world civil society has similarly mobilised: from school children striking for the climate in 30 countries, fellow ‘rebel’ protests from South Africa to Hong Kong to Australia, and indigenous people gathering to demand environmental protections for their territories in Brazil.

To some, such protests have seemed an irritation or distraction from the realities of daily life, led by a bunch of ‘tree-huggers’ intent on disrupting ‘business as usual’.  These calls are, however, joined by clear and compelling evidence from a systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, compiledby nearly150 expert authors from 50 countries over three years, urging transformative change to this failed business model. It shows that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.

Following a week-long meeting in Paris, scientists and governments have today published an unparalleled global report that finds that nature is declining at a rate that is unprecedented in human history, and that this is threatening our future because of our dependence on healthy ecosystems for most of our most basic needs, including food, water, clean air and climate control.  And here’s a key point; this is not a report by ‘experts’ TO government, but a report endorsed and adopted BY governments, as members of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – akin to the respected and highly influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that informs negotiations at the UN climate change convention.

The first Global Assessment from IPBES concludes that, from genes to species and ecosystems, humanity’s common heritage and safety net is declining fast. The report summarises data from IUCN and BirdLife International showing that of the species groups that have been assessed for the IUCN Red List,one in four species is threatened with extinction. Extrapolating these trends across the estimated number of species in all groups, a shocking one million species may be currently threatened with global extinction.

Even species that are not yet threatened have suffered substantial declines in abundance, by 60% since 1970 for vertebrate species according to one indicator. And the habitats these species depend on are being lost: overall, 75% of the area of the terrestrial environment and 40% of the marine environment are severely altered by human impacts.


But apart from risking the loss of some of our most-loved, iconic species, why should we really care about biodiversity? The loss of species and reduction in numbers of individuals is not just of concern to academics and conservationists, but to us all. A healthy ecosystem is one that has both variety and abundance of life, and it is this delicate balance that delivers what are known as ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination, water cycling, carbon sequestration and storage, which in turn provide us with the food, water and clean air we need to live.  The more ‘biodiverse’ an ecosystem, the greater the benefits and the more likely that it will be resilient to change (including climate change) in the long term.

The IPBES report therefore highlights that the loss of biodiversity also threatens our own survival and that of future generations, and is just as important as the now-famous ‘1.5-degree report’ released by the IPCC last year. Nature plays a critical role in providing food, energy, medicines, materials, sustaining the quality of air, fresh water and soils, regulating climate, and reducing the impact of natural hazards. For example, over two billion people rely on wood fuel to meet their primary energy needs. However, our assault on nature is fraying the fabric of life and eroding our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide: we are destroying our life-support system. As just one example, up to 300 million people are at increased risk of floods because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.

However, the assessment provides some encouraging news too: it’s not too late to make a difference, but this will require ‘transformative change’, in other words, fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors. The report points to the urgent need to reform perverse incentives such as subsidies for agriculture, forestry or fisheries that make no sense environmentally or economically. For example, finance that promotes deforestation outpaces that for protection by 40:1. It emphasises the need for developing integrated management of landscapes that takes into account the trade-offs between food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and nature conservation.

At BirdLife International, based on our globally-recognised science, such as State of the World’s Birds, we’ve long been advocating for recognition of the magnitude of biodiversity declines and the seriousness of these for people and sustainable development, including in international policy processes such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biological Diversity. We’ve also been developing and implementing innovative solutions to these issues. In Indonesia, BirdLife and its Partner, Burung, developed the Ecosystem Restoration Concession concept, which restores logged or degraded forest for climate change mitigation and other ecosystem services as well as biodiversity conservation, and has now been taken up nationally. Our Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project is empowering local people in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea to manage and protect their own forests through actions to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).  And the Trillion Trees initiative aims to keep existing trees standing and restore tree cover for a trillion trees around the world by 2050. We’re working with local people around the world to safeguard a whole range of coastal and inland wetlands, drylands, grasslands, and marine ecosystems too.

A key part of the IPBES Global Assessment is its evaluation of progress towards the goals adopted by governments: the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ for 2020 adopted through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 adopted through the United Nations (co-led by BirdLife’s Chief Scientist, Dr Stuart Butchart). The report concludes that we are unlikely to meet most of the Aichi Targets, with good progress made towards elements of just four of the 20 Aichi Targets. One of these relates to increasing the coverage of protected areas, which has now reached 15% of terrestrial and freshwater environments and 7% of the marine realm.  However, these only partly cover areas of particular importance for biodiversity such as Key Biodiversity Areas, and many are not yet effectively managed. Similarly, while some species have been brought back from the brink of extinction (contributing towards a target on preventing extinctions), species are moving towards extinction at an increasing rate overall for all taxonomic groups with known trends.

In general, more progress has been made in adopting and/or implementing policy responses and actions to conserve and use nature more sustainably than in addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss. As a result, the state of nature overall continues to decline. Given that nature and its contributions to people underpin the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals, either directly or indirectly, the ongoing loss of biodiversity is hampering progress towards these goals, including those related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.

To support governments and others achieve greater progress towards several of the goals and targets, BirdLife has been working in partnership with other leading conservation organisations to identify the most important sites for biodiversity globally – Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), as mentioned above.  These are locations that are important for threatened or geographically restricted species or ecosystems, or for ecological or evolutionary processes. Many governments have used information on these sites to target expansion of their protected area networks, but many KBAs still have no or ineffective protection and are not adequately conserved.  KBAs should be a particular focus for improved targets to protect and safeguard nature, as part of a wider mission to start to restore nature by 2030 under the new global framework for biodiversity that will be signed by governments in China next year.

Next year, 2020, will be a critical year for both nature and climate, with national climate action plans and the biodiversity-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also being updated. The post-2020 UN biodiversity framework must be transformational in mobilising a move from ‘business as usual’ and improving synergies with the climate and sustainable development agendas, recognising that healthy economies and societies are underpinned by healthy natural systems. There is still time to act, but not much, so urgent, strong and sustained political and societal efforts are needed.

The evidence is clear; we cannot continue to run-down nature without leaving the world in a dangerous state for future generations. With the loss of many of our most treasured ecosystems and species, our wonderful planet would be surely a less joyful as well as less liveable place.