In protecting the diversity of life on Earth, the world is behind schedule

© Robin Moore/iLCP

In 2010, the world’s nations agreed on 20 ambitious goals to stem the global extinction crisis that threatens to shrink the diversity of life on Earth in the coming decades. As negotiators gather this week in Cancun for the latest meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — six years after those 20 goals, called the Aichi Targets, were set — how close is the world to achieving them?

The Aichi Targets, which range from specific goals — such as protecting 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas — to less defined ones — such as expanding global awareness of the value of biodiversity — were intended to be achieved by 2020. With four years left for countries to make progress, Conservation International (CI) joined with four other global conservation organizations — Birdlife International, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Nature Conservancy and WWF — to determine how countries are progressing toward these targets. We looked at how countries matched their ambition to each Aichi Target as well as their progress in meeting their goals.

While our report shows positive progress on a number of the targets, the overall picture is poor, with inadequate progress to date in most countries. Unless countries significantly increase their ambition through more resources and improved policies for biodiversity protection, the Aichi Targets will not be met, and we will increasingly undermine the long-term well-being of humanity.

What’s going well

According to national reports, only about 5 percent of countries that have reported results are on track to meet the Aichi Targets. Countries do appear to be progressing better on targets that are more procedural in nature, such as Target 17, which requires each country to update their national biodiversity action plan.

Target 11, which focuses on expanding protected areas to 17 percent of land and 10 percent of sea, has a long history of integration into national strategies, so this may explain why progress is higher for this target. While estimates are still incomplete, a U.N. Environment Programme report estimated that 15.4 percent of terrestrial areas and 3.4 percent of ocean were protected as of 2014.

What needs work

Around 75 percent of reporting countries have made progress toward the goals, but at an insufficient rate to meet them by 2020. An additional 20 percent of national reports indicate that countries have made no progress or have even moved away from the global targets.

The limited progress for many countries is likely explained in part due to competing demands for financial resources. Target 20 (focused on mobilizing the funding needed to achieve the other targets) has one of the lowest scores, with 35 percent of reporting countries indicating no progress. This is worrying, as this is one of the most important areas where we need ambitious and bold commitments.

When compared with, say, an economic downturn or an immediate development opportunity, funding biodiversity protection may seem like a lower priority. However, species and ecosystems form the building blocks of all life on Earth, and they are inextricably connected to our well-being. Sufficient, sustainable and accessible flows of funding are crucial for implementing activities for biodiversity, including conservation measures that yield important benefits for people. Case in point: Research indicates that for every dollar invested in achieving the targets, about US$ 7 is saved in ecological goods and services such as freshwater provision, pollination and carbon sequestration.

What’s next

In our review, we examined the ambition and progress of high- and low-income countries to determine if and how economic status influences a country’s success at taking adequate action to protect biodiversity. We found that while high-income countries tended to have weak national goals — only 5 percent of high-income countries reported ambitious targets — they did report more progress than low- and middle-income countries. Conversely, low-income countries have set more ambitious goals for themselves than high-income countries, but made less progress toward them.

To make significant progress on protecting the planet’s essential biodiversity by 2020, high-income countries need to significantly ramp up their ambition, including by mobilizing resources, improving environmental governance and addressing biodiversity concerns in collaboration with other sectors (such as the private sector) to meet the targets.

High-income countries must expand technical and financial actions to help low-income countries turn their ambition into action. Supporting low-income countries should also be a priority for funding by bilateral and multilateral financing mechanisms. The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (the successors to the Millennium Development Goals) provides a good avenue for integrating biodiversity actions into national development planning, as the conservation of biodiversity and natural ecosystems is inextricably linked to the goals of sustainable development. As biodiversity is central to agriculture, forests, fisheries, fresh water and clean air, a healthy, diverse natural world is more resilient to climate change, providing more options for food, medicine and other important resources.

In addition, improving reporting will help everyone better understand what we are doing well and where we are falling short. Countries must identify where they have made progress on the targets and share their successes with other countries so they can be replicated. They must also ensure they report their ambition and progress accurately and regularly, as it is currently difficult to see where effective progress is being achieved, and which countries face the biggest challenges.

The Aichi Targets are part of a global agreement for which all countries must take responsibility. Between now and the next major CBD meeting in 2018, CI and our peer organizations will continue to evaluate how well countries are achieving their commitments to biodiversity. The more we know about how well we’re doing, the quicker we can move in and fill the gap.

Rowan Braybrook is CI’s senior manager of sustainable development policy.

Further reading