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A safety net for nature

To tackle nature’s alarming decline, we need a "safety net" made up of multiple interlinked and ambitious goals
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Preparation is underway for the next generation of biodiversity goals. This research will help make them more effective. Photo credit: Thomas Bishop

To tackle nature’s alarming decline, we need a "safety net" made up of multiple interlinked and ambitious goals, concludes an international team of researchers analyzing the new goals for nature being drafted by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity.

The scientific advice comes at a critical time: The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently announced that none of its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 have been reached. Policymakers, scientists and country negotiators are now preparing for the next generation of biodiversity goals for 2030 and 2050, to be enshrined by their 15th Convention of the Parties in 2021.

The paper, published in Science, outlines the scientific basis for redesigning this new set of biodiversity goals. To reach the road to recovery, ecosystems, species, genetic diversity and nature’s contributions to people all need distinct goals that are woven together into a safety net and set at a high level of ambition.

“By safety net, we mean that a holistic set of goals better reflects the intertwined and inextricable facets of biodiversity than a single apex target,” said Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, co-author on the paper and lead scientist at the Natural Capital Project. “Biodiversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels, and its diverse values to people, are each dependent on the others and managing for each goal in isolation could undermine the achievement of all.”

The text of the CBD’s document on new goals for biodiversity is currently in flux; countries, organizations and interest groups have all put forward proposals. The study’s researchers—a group of more than 60 leading biodiversity experts from 26 countries—assessed these draft goals. They investigated the scientific evidence supporting them, how these goals reinforce or undermine each other, and whether one aspect of nature could serve as a shortcut for others.

The result is an independent, scientifically grounded, unprecedentedly comprehensive assessment. “We hope this is a useful tool in the CBD negotiations on a new strategy for nature and people,” “said Sandra Diaz, co-lead for the Earth Commission’s working group on biosphere interactions and lead author.

According to the scientists three points are critical for nations to consider when setting the new biodiversity goals.

Firstly, a single goal for nature, based on a single facet, is risky. For example, those goals focused only on species extinctions, or one ecosystem area, similar to the ”below 2°C” target for climate. Multiple goals are needed for ecosystems, species, genes and nature’s contributions to people to make sure none of them falls through the gaps. Although having one target as a shortcut for the whole of nature might be tempting, the balance of published evidence is against it. Instead, a much safer approach is to match each major facet of nature—like species and nature’s contributions to people—with specific goals. This buttresses the CBD’s vision of ”living in harmony with nature.”

Secondly, as the facets of nature are interlinked and affect each other for better or worse, the goals must be defined and delivered holistically, not in isolation. 

Thirdly, to have a realistic chance of “bending” the curve of nature’s decline by 2050, all goals must be ambitious and integrated. It will not be enough to have, for example, an ambitious goal for reducing species extinctions if goals for ecosystems and genetic diversity are not also ambitious. The paper concludes that unless the different facets are contemplated together, and unless the ambitions are set very high for each of them, there is very little chance to transition to a better and fairer future for all life on Earth by 2050.

The paper provides the scientific basis for distinguishing between low and high ambitions. Ambitious goals should include, for example, strict “no net loss” and targeted restorations of ecosystems, both in natural and managed lands. They should also aim for a minimal loss of species with 90 percent of genetic diversity conserved and a broad range of nature’s contributions to people secured.

The authors did not evaluate economic or political consequences of the goals, but they highlight that considering social and political issues when implementing actions is crucial to success.

“Building a sufficiently ambitious safety net for nature will be a major global challenge,” said Díaz, “but unless we do it, we are leaving huge problems for every future generation.”

This press release was adapted from the original Earth Commission release.

Sandra Díaz is Senior Researcher, National Research Council (CONICET), and Professor at the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. She co-leads the Earth Commission’s working group on biosphere interactions and has co-chaired the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

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