Time to think big

28 September 2010 | Article

Did the designation of 2010 as the first-ever International Year of Biodiversity mean anything at all? Is it just a publicity stunt, with no engagement on the real, practical issues of conservation, asks Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

Eight years ago 183 of the world’s governments committed themselves “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth”. This was hardly visionary—the focus was not on stopping extinctions or loss of key habitats, but simply on slowing their rate of loss—but it was, at least, the first time the nations of the world had pledged themselves to any form of concerted attempt to face up to the ongoing degradation of nature.

Now the results of all the analyses of conservation progress since 2002 are coming in, and there is a unanimous finding: the world has spectacularly failed to meet the 2010 Biodiversity Target, as it is called. Instead species extinctions, habitat loss and the degradation of ecosystems are all accelerating. To give a few examples: declines and extinctions of amphibians due to disease and habitat loss are getting worse; bleaching of coral reefs is growing; and large animals in South-East Asia are moving rapidly towards extinction, especially from over-hunting and degradation of habitats.

This month the world’s governments will convene in Nagoya, Japan, for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of the Parties. Many of us hope for agreement there on new, much more ambitious biodiversity targets for the future. The first test of whether or not the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity means anything will be whether or not the international community can commit itself to a truly ambitious conservation agenda.

The early signs are promising. Negotiating sessions around the world have produced 20 new draft targets for 2020. Collectively these are nearly as strong as many of us hoped, and certainly much stronger than the 2010 Biodiversity Target. They include: halving the loss and degradation of forests and other natural habitats; eliminating overfishing and destructive fishing practices; sustainably managing all areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry; bringing pollution from excess nutrients and other sources below critical ecosystem loads; controlling pathways introducing and establishing invasive alien species; managing multiple pressures on coral reefs and other vulnerable ecosystems affected by climate change and ocean acidification; effectively protecting at least 15 per cent of land and sea, including the areas of particular importance for biodiversity; and preventing the extinction of known threatened species. We now have to keep up the pressure to prevent these from becoming diluted.

We at IUCN are pushing for urgent action to stop biodiversity loss once and for all. The well-being of the entire planet—and of people—depends on our committing to maintain healthy ecosystems and strong wildlife populations. We are therefore proposing, as a mission for 2020, “to have put in place by 2020 all the necessary policies and actions to prevent further biodiversity loss”. Examples include removing government subsidies which damage biodiversity (as many agricultural ones do), establishing new nature reserves in important areas for threatened species, requiring fisheries authorities to follow the advice of their scientists to ensure the sustainability of catches, and dramatically cutting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide to reduce the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.

If the world makes a commitment along these lines, then the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity will have been about more than platitudes. But it will still only be a start: the commitment needs to be implemented. We need to look for signs this year of a real change from governments and society over the priority accorded to biodiversity.

One important sign will be the amount of funding that governments pledge this year for replenishing the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the world’s largest donor for biodiversity conservation in developing countries. Between 1991 and 2006, it provided approximately $2.2 billion in grants to support more than 750 biodiversity projects in 155 countries. If the GEF is replenished at much the same level as over the last decade we shall know that the governments are still in “business as usual” mode. But if it is doubled or tripled in size, then we shall know that they are starting to get serious.

IUCN estimates that even a tripling of funding would still fall far short of what is needed to halt biodiversity loss. Some conservationists have suggested that developed countries need to contribute 0.2 per cent of gross national income in overseas biodiversity assistance to achieve this. That would work out at roughly $120 billion a year—though of course this would need to come through a number of sources, not just the GEF. It is tempting to think that this figure is unrealistically high, but it is small change compared to the expenditures governments have committed to defence and bank bail outs.

It is time for the conservation movement to think big. We are addressing problems that are hugely important for the future of this planet and its people, and they will not be solved without a huge increase in funds.