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Global Biodiversity Outlook 3

Towards a Strategy for Reducing Biodiversity Loss

Well-targeted policies focusing on critical areas, species and ecosystem services can help to avoid the most dangerous impacts on people and societies from biodiversity loss in the near-term future, which it will be extremely challenging to avoid. In the longer term, biodiversity loss may be halted and then reversed, if urgent, concerted and effective action is applied in support of an agreed longterm vision. The 2010 review of the strategic plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity provides an opportunity to define such a vision and set time-bound targets to stimulate the action required to achieve it.

A key lesson from the failure to meet the 2010 biodiversity target is that the urgency of a change of direction must be conveyed to decision-makers beyond the constituency so far involved in the biodiversity convention. The CBD has very nearly universal participation from the world's governments, yet those involved in its implementation rarely have the influence to promote action at the level required to effect real change.

Thus, while the activities of environmental departments and agencies in tackling specific threats to species, and expanding protected areas, has been and continues to be extremely important, they are easily undermined by decisions from other ministries that fail to apply strategic thinking on policies and actions that impact on ecosystems and other components of biodiversity.

Mainstreaming therefore needs to be seen as the genuine understanding by government machinery as a whole that the future well-being of society depends on defending the natural infrastructure on which we all depend. To some extent, this approach is already working its way through some government systems on the question of climate change, with "climateproofing" of policies becoming a more common practice. Some trade-offs between conservation and development are inevitable, and it is important that decisions are informed by the best available information and that the tradeoffs are clearly recognized up-front.

Systematic proofing of policies for their impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services would ensure not only that biodiversity was better protected, but that climate change itself was more effectively addressed. Conservation of biodiversity, and, where necessary restoration of ecosystems, can be costeffective interventions for both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, often with substantial co-benefits.

It is clear from the scenarios outlined above that addressing the multiple drivers of biodiversity loss is a vital form of climate change adaptation. Looked at in a positive way, this understanding gives us more options. We do not need to resign ourselves to the fact that due to the time lags built into climate change, we are powerless to protect coastal communities against sea level rise, dry regions against fire and drought, or river- valley dwellers against floods and landslides.

Although it will not address all climate impacts, targeting ecosystem pressures over which we have more immediate control will help to ensure that ecosystems continue to be resilient and to prevent some dangerous tipping points from being reached.

If accompanied by determined action to reduce emissions - with the conservation of forests and other carbon-storing ecosystems given due priority in mitigation strategies - then biodiversity protection can help buy time, while the climate system responds to a stabilizing of greenhouse gas concentrations.

Important incentives for the conservation of biodiversity can emerge from systems that ensure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources, the third objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In practice, this means drawing up rules and agreements that strike a fair balance between facilitating access to companies or researchers seeking to use genetic material, and ensuring that the entitlements of governments and local communities are respected, including the granting of informed consent prior to access taking place, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.

Development of systems for access and benefitsharing (ABS) has been slow, and negotiations on an international regime to regulate such agreements have been long and protracted. However, individual examples have shown the way that communities, companies and biodiversity can each benefit from ABS agreements. [See Box 22]. With the deadline for the 2010 target now here, the global community must consider what long-term vision it is seeking, and the type of medium-term targets that might set us on the road towards achieving it. These targets must also be translated into action at the national level though national biodiversity strategies and action plans, and treated as a mainstream issue across government.

From analysis of the failure so far to slow biodiversity loss, the following elements might be considered for a future strategy [See Figure 21]:

✤ Where possible, tackle the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. This is hard, because it involves issues such as consumption and lifestyle choices, and long-term trends like population increase. However, as the analysis conducted as part of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) illustrates, public engagement with the issues combined with appropriate pricing and incentives (including the removal of perverse subsidies) could reduce some of these drivers, for example by encouraging more moderate, less wasteful - and more healthy - levels of meat consumption. Awareness of the impact of excessive use of water, energy and materials can help to limit rising demand for resources from growing and more prosperous populations.

✤ International and national rules and frameworks for markets and economic activities can and must be adjusted and developed in such a way that they contribute to safeguarding and sustainably using biodiversity, instead of threatening it as they have often done in the past. Using pricing, fiscal policies and other mechanisms to reflect the real value of ecosystems, powerful incentives can be created to reverse patterns of destruction that result from the under-valuation of biodiversity. An important step will be for governments to expand their economic objectives beyond what is measured by GDP alone, recognizing other measures of wealth and well-being that take natural capital and other concepts into account.

✤ Use every opportunity to break the link between the indirect and direct drivers of biodiversity loss - in other words, prevent underlying pressures such as population increase and increased consumption from inevitably leading to pressures such as loss of habitat, pollution or over-exploitation. This involves much more efficient use of land, water, sea and other resources to meet existing and future demand [See figure 22]. Better spatial planning to safeguard areas important for biodiversity and ecosystem services is essential. Specific measures such as addressing the pathways of invasive species transfers can prevent increased trade from acting as a driver of ecosystem damage.

✤ Efficiency in the use of a natural resource must be balanced with the need to maintain ecosystem functions and resilience. This involves finding an appropriate level of intensity in the use of resources, for example increasing productivity of agricultural land while maintaining a diverse landscape, and reducing fishing intensity below the so-called maximum sustainable yield. An ecosystemlevel approach will be required to establish this balance.

✤ Where multiple drivers are combining to weaken ecosystems, aggressive action to reduce those more amenable to rapid intervention can be prioritized, while longer-term efforts continue to moderate more intractable drivers, such as climate change and ocean acidification. The many human pressures on coral reefs, mentioned above, provide an example of where this strategy can be applied.

✤ Avoid unnecessarily tradeoffs resulting from maximizing one ecosystem service at the expense of another. Substantial benefits for biodiversity can often arise from only slight limits on the exploitation of other benefits - such as agricultural production. An example is that funds to reward protection of forest carbon stocks could dramatically improve species conservation, if targeted towards areas of high biodiversity value, with a tiny marginal increase in cost.

✤ Continue direct action to conserve biodiversity, targeting vulnerable and culturally-valued species and habitats, and critical sites for biodiversity, combined with priority actions to safeguard key ecosystem services, particularly those of importance to the poor such as the provision of food and medicines. This should include the protection of functional ecological groups - that is, those species collectively responsible for the provision of ecosystem services such as pollination, maintenance of healthy predator- prey relationships, cycling of nutrients and soil formation.

✤ Take full advantage of opportunities to contribute to climate change mitigation through conservation and restoration of forests, peatlands, wetlands and other ecosystems that capture and store large amounts of carbon; and climate change adaptation through investing in "natural infrastructure", and planning for geographical shifts in species and communities by maintaining and enhancing ecological connectivity across landscapes and inland water ecosystems.

✤ Use national programmes or legislation to create a favourable environment to support effective "bottom-up" initiatives led by communities, local authorities, or businesses. This also includes empowering indigenous peoples and local communities to take responsibility for biodiversity management and decision-making; and developing systems to ensure that the benefits arising from access to genetic resources are equitably shared [See Box 23].

✤ Strengthen efforts to communicate better the links between biodiversity, ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Through education and more effective dissemination of scientific knowledge, a much wider section of the public and decision-makers could be made aware of the role and value of biodiversity and the steps needed to conserve it.

✤ Increasingly, restoration of terrestrial, inland water and marine ecosystems will be needed to re-establish ecosystem functioning and the provision of valuable ecosystem services. A recent analysis of schemes to restore degraded ecosystems showed that, overall, such schemes are successful in improving the status of biodiversity. Moreover, economic analysis conducted by the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), shows that ecosystem restoration may give good economic rates of return when considering the long-term provision of ecosystem services. However the levels of biodiversity and ecosystem services remained below the levels of the pristine ecosystems, reinforcing the argument that, where possible, avoiding degradation through conservation is preferable (and even more cost-effective) than restoration after the event. Restoration can take decades to have a significant impact, and will be more effective for some ecosystems than for others. In some cases, restoration of ecosystems will not be possible as the impacts of degradation are irreversible.

Addressing biodiversity loss at each of these levels will involve a major shift in perception and priorities on the part of decision-makers, and the engagement of all sections of society, including the private sector. For the most part, we know what needs to be done, but political will, perseverance and courage will be required to carry out these actions at the necessary scale and address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

Continued failure to slow current trends has potential consequences even more serious than previously anticipated, and future generations may pay dearly in the form of ecosystems incapable of meeting the basic needs of humanity. The rewards for coherent action, on the other hand, are great. Not only will the stunning variety of life on Earth be much more effectively protected, but human societies will be much better equipped to provide healthy, secure and prosperous livelihoods in the challenging decades ahead.

The overall message of this Outlook is clear. We can no longer see the continued loss of biodiversity as an issue separate from the core concerns of society: to tackle poverty, to improve the health, prosperity and security of present and future generations, and to deal with climate change. Each of those objectives is undermined by current trends in the state of our ecosystems, and each will be greatly strengthened if we finally give biodiversity the priority it deserves.

In 2008-9, the world's governments rapidly mobilized hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent collapse of a financial system whose flimsy foundations took the markets by surprise. Now we have clear warnings of the potential breaking points towards which we are pushing the ecosystems that have shaped our civilizations. For a fraction of the money summoned up instantly to avoid economic meltdown, we can avoid a much more serious and fundamental breakdown in the Earth's life support systems.

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme