Are we making progress to conserve biodiversity or are we still destroying it? A round up of the IPBES regional assessments – Jane Feeney

Biodiversity refers to the complex web of genes, species, communities of creatures and entire ecosystems that make up our planet. Biodiversity is the Earth’s living fabric, vital for sustaining ecosystems and for human survival. Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are, according to the Chair of IPBES Sir Robert Watson, “the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life”.

In order to strengthen knowledge about the state of biodiversity globally and to inform better decisions affecting nature, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2012. An independent intergovernmental body, it is currently made up of 129 member governments. The sixth plenary session of the IPBES was held in Medellín, Colombia from 17 to 24 March 2018. Scientists, policy makers and stakeholders from over 100 countries united during one week with an ambitious task: to approve and launch four regional biodiversity assessments, as well as an assessment on land degradation and restoration. These assessments were the result of three years’ work involving over 550 experts and is the first evaluation of its kind since the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

 Photo credit: IPBES


Each regional assessment (Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe and Central Asia) addresses the following questions:

  • Why is biodiversity important?
  • Are we making progress or are we still destroying biodiversity and undermining human wellbeing?
  • What are the threats to biodiversity?
  • What policies and governance structures can lead to a more sustainable future?
  • What are the priority gaps in knowledge?

Using the findings from these reports, a global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services is due to be released in 2019.

Biodiversity is declining at a dangerous rate globally

The bottom line arising from the assessments is that biodiversity continues to decline in every region of the world, with negative implications for human well-being. The main drivers include the intensification of agriculture and forestry, climate change, resource extraction, invasive alien species, and pollution.

The reports discuss underlying factors such as rapid economic growth, globalization and urbanization which are modifying consumption and production patterns, to the detriment of the planet and human well-being.

Some key findings from the assessments are highlighted below:

> Climate change threatens biodiversity

Climate change has been identified as a major threat to biodiversity in all regions, and poses a particular threat to coastal ecosystems, low-lying coastal areas and islands. Human-induced climate change affects temperature, precipitation, sea level rise and the occurrence of extreme weather events, impacting on species, habitats and ecosystem structure and function, as well as other knock-on effects such as increased pest and disease outbreaks.

> Biodiversity loss undermines action towards global sustainability targets

Continued loss of biodiversity and degradation of nature’s contributions to people undermines the ability of countries and regions to meet their global targets. The achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the Paris climate agreement, “depend on the health and vitality of our natural environment in all its diversity and complexity. Acting to protect and promote biodiversity is at least as important to achieving these commitments and to human wellbeing as is the fight against global climate change”, according to Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES.

The IPBES is sometimes referred to as the ‘IPCC for biodiversity’. Discussions arose during the IPBES-6 Stakeholder Day in Medellín around why biodiversity does not receive the same level of attention as climate change in policy agendas and among society. The complexity and diversity of biodiversity make the concept hard to grasp and defy its translation into simple universal goals that are appealing to policy makers, such as the 2°C limit. The IPCC has also been around twenty years longer than IPBES, so it will require more time and ground work. Although there are concerns that climate change may overshadow or deflect from other environmental issues like biodiversity loss in terms of both public awareness and funding, one panel member declared that it’s not “us or them”, referring to biodiversity vs. climate change. Given the interconnected nature of the two issues, a convergence of efforts through IPBES and IPCC can benefit overall environmental outcomes and conservationists can seek opportunities to link with climate action.

> Indigenous and local knowledge is an extremely valuable, but under-appreciated, resource for nature protection

  • The Americas assessment highlights the fact that indigenous people and local communities have created a diversity of polyculture and agroforestry systems, which have increased biodiversity and shaped landscapes, but also warns that local languages and cultures are dying out.
  • In the Asia-Pacific region, traditional agrobiodiversity is in decline, along with its associated indigenous and local knowledge (ILK), due to a shift towards intensification of agriculture. However, the region also highlights positive examples of community-conserved areas managed and guided by ILK and culture-based practices.
  • In Africa, the wealth of ILK, developed over a long history of human interactions with the environment, represents a key strategic asset for sustainable development in the region and requires greater attention from governments and society.
  • In Europe and Central Asia there has been a loss of ILK along with the abandonment of traditional land uses, and the report highlights a knowledge gap in how to integrate ILK into national and international policy frameworks and initiatives.

IPBES has an ILK task force and technical support unit to develop procedures and approaches for working with ILK systems and participatory mechanisms under the IPBES Platform. However, improvements need to be made, as was stressed during the IPBES-6 Stakeholder Day, for greater representation of indigenous people within the Platform, along with the recognition of multiple systems of values and the need to define, identify and include ‘local communities’. The importance of incorporating more ‘grey’ material including ILK materials into IPBES assessments was highlighted, in addition to peer-reviewed scientific articles, and improving access to IPBES outputs through multilingual versions of reports and communication materials.

> Protected areas are key for conservation, but need to be combined with human-dominated landscapes that support nature

  • In the Americas, protection of key biodiversity areas increased 17% between 1970 and 2010, although less than 20% of key biodiversity areas are protected and coverage varies significantly. The report highlights that aside from protected areas and restoration projects, strategies are needed to make human-dominated landscapes more supportive of biodiversity.
  • The Asia-Pacific region saw a growth of 0.3% in terrestrial protected areas and almost 14% in marine protected areas between 2004 and 2017. However, most of the important bird areas and key biodiversity areas remain unprotected, and an increase in forest and protected areas alone is not enough to withstand the biodiversity impacts of monocultures.
  • In Africa, 13.4% of the continent’s land mass and 2.6% of seas have been designated as protected areas, contributing to the recovery of threatened species. There is an urgent need to expand the protected area network and find strategic approaches to understand and address barriers to such expansion.
  • In Europe and Central Asia, protected areas now cover 10.2% of the region, 13.5% of its terrestrial area and 5.2% of its marine area. Yet, the assessment stresses that it is not only coverage of protected areas that matters, but also their efficacy, connectivity and representativeness, as well as a need to foster biodiversity outside protected areas.
Photo credit: Petr Baumann/

> Land degradation is now ‘critical’, threatening human wellbeing

The assessment on land degradation and restoration finds that more than 3.2 billion people are already affected and this is set to worsen without rapid action. Land degradation is driving species extinctions, intensifying climate change, and is a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict. According to the report, land degradation is being driven by high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. The report also identifies opportunities to accelerate action, including improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data; better policy coordination; eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management.

Ways forward:

Although the results of the assessments paint a grim picture for biodiversity, they also identify some important success stories and review tools, methods and governance options to address the environmental crises we are facing. Chair of IPBES Sir Robert Watson said: “Although there are no ‘silver bullets’ or ‘one-size-fits all’ answers, the best options in all four regional assessments are found in better governance, integrating biodiversity concerns into sectoral policies and practices (e.g. agriculture and energy), the application of scientific knowledge and technology, increased awareness and behavioural changes.”

Jane Feeney is a PhD candidate at the Geography Department, Trinity College Dublin. She is currently in Colombia carrying out fieldwork on biodiversity offsetting and is a visiting researcher at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá.  


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