Variety of life on Earth is being lost at “unprecedented” pace

Seminal U.N. report assesses political action to curb decline in biodiversity

The golden-keeled diplocaulobium, a rare orchid found in the cloud forests of biodiversity hotspot Papua New Guinea. sunoochi, Flickr
15 September 2020
Sandra Cordon
15 September 2020
Sandra Cordon

Join the Global Landscapes Forum’s digital conference on biodiversity 28–29 October.

The Earth’s biodiversity – the entire range of life on Earth – is “suffering badly and getting worse” warned the United Nations’ biodiversity agency in a sweeping new report released 15 September.

This 200-page report, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5), was published by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with contributions from more than 100 global scientists, based on research studies as well as country reports and other indicators. A policy-focused counterpart of sorts to last year’s major report from biodiversity platform IPBES, it assessed the lack of progress on the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets upon their deadline this year. The last GBO was published in 2015, midway through the Aichi timeline.

“The rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history and pressures are intensifying,” warned CBD executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.

Life in oceans is seriously under threat, found the report, due to pollution and changing water temperatures. Taro Taylor, Flickr
Life in oceans is seriously under threat, found the report, due to pollution and changing water temperatures. Taro Taylor, Flickr

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets were designed as the prevailing global framework for achieving the U.N. Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. Adopted in 2010, they mandated governments to curb biodiversity loss by cutting pollution, managing fish stocks sustainably, removing subsidies that harm nature and other measures.

The report found that none of the targets have been fully achieved, and only six were partially met. This failure threatens success in fulfilling the wider Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and undermines efforts to address climate change, the GBO warned.

Unsustainable patterns of production and consumption” were blamed for declines in biodiversity that especially hurt Indigenous peoples and local communities as well as the world’s poor and vulnerable, “given their reliance on biodiversity for their well-being,” said the report. Indigenous peoples own or manage at least one-quarter of the world’s land area.

Illegal logging on Indigenous lands in the Amazon. The UN biodiversity report highlights progress on improving rates of deforestation. Quapan, Flickr
Illegal logging on Indigenous lands in the Amazon. Quapan, Flickr

Oceans are of particular concern. More than 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs are under threat, the proportion of fish stocks fished sustainably is down by 5 percent since 2010, and there are 260,000 tons of plastic particles in ocean waters.

Agriculture was found to cover 9 percent of all land, with only 29 percent of farms operating sustainably. More than 27 percent of domesticated animals are at risk of extinction.

Public funds for biodiversity amount to USD 9.3 billion, but harmful subsidies and financial incentives trump this at USD 500 billion.

The country reports examined for the GBO-5 revealed that national targets are often unaligned with the Aichi Targets, being less comprehensive in scope and ambition. Policies and actions to support biodiversity are positively increasing, but so too are drivers of biodiversity loss as well as the overall rate of biodiversity loss.

In response, the report calls for a One Health model that integrates ecosystems, agriculture, wildlife and urban landscapes into a singular approach to human and planetary health.

“Now is the time for a massive step-up: conserving, restoring and using biodiversity fairly and sustainably,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UN Environment. “If we do not, biodiversity will continue to buckle under the weight of land- and sea-use changes, over-exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive species and that will further damage human health, economies and societies with the particular impact on Indigenous communities.”

A cheetah in South Africa's Kruger National Park, a protected area that's among Africa's largest game reserves. Will Sweet, Flickr
A cheetah in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a protected area that’s among Africa’s largest game reserves. Will Sweet, Flickr

“Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised,” said Mrema. “And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well-being, security and prosperity.”

The GBO 5 highlights progress in the following 10 areas:

  • 91 countries now include biodiversity in national accounting systems
  • The rate of deforestation is down 33% of what it was in 2000–2010
  • Fisheries management policy has improved
  • Approximately 200 invasive mammal species have been eradicated since 2010, benefitting 236 native species
  • Marine and terrestrial protected areas have increased by 4% and 5% respectively since 2000, and 44% of all key biodiversity areas now protected
  • Extinction rates, though high, could have been two-to-four times higher without conservation actions that have been taken in recent years; between 28 and 48 species have been saved from extinction since 1993
  • The Nagoya Protocol, which deals with fair access to and benefits from genetic resources, is fully operational in at least 87 countries
  • 170 countries have updated their biodiversity strategies and action plans
  • Data and information on biodiversity has increased seven-fold in the past decade, with 1.4 billion species occurrence records now freely accessible
  • International public financial resources for biodiversity have doubled in the last decade
A local Somali fisherman brings his catch to a local market in Mogadishu. Rampant illegal foreign fishing is destroying fish stocks and habitats in the country's coastal waters and creating conflict with locals. Fishing is a focus of the 2020 UN biodiversity report. AMISOM Public Information
A local Somali fisherman brings his catch to a local market in Mogadishu. Rampant illegal foreign fishing is destroying fish stocks and habitats in the country’s coastal waters and creating conflict with many locals who depend on sustainable fishing for their livelihoods. AMISOM Public Information

The report said lessons learned to slow and eventually halt the decline in nature include:

  • Greater efforts to address direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss
  • Stronger integration of gender, Indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation efforts
  • Stronger national biodiversity strategies and action plans involving policies that cross government agencies and bureaucracies
  • Well-designed goals and targets with clear language and quantitative elements
  • Reduced time lags in implementing biodiversity strategies and action plans
  • More ambitious national commitments, greater technical and scientific cooperation and sustained and targeted support to countries

The report comes as the CBD works to develop a new set of global biodiversity targets for 2021–2030, known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Negotiations on this new framework were postponed from October 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their re-scheduling for May 2021 during CBD meetings in Kunming, China might be further postponed.

The original vision for biodiversity protection remains achievable if countries strengthen their commitments at upcoming meetings “to achieve transformative change,” Mrema told a news conference.

The release of this report amid the coronavirus pandemic challenges people to rethink their relationship with nature, said Mrema. It also demands people consider the profound consequences for their own well-being and survival that could result from continued biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems, she added.

The Rufiji Delta, Tanzania, is home to eastern Africa's largest mangrove forest. Brent Stirton, WWF
The Rufiji Delta, Tanzania, is home to eastern Africa’s largest mangrove forest. Brent Stirton, WWF

“As nature degrades, new opportunities emerge for the spread to humans and animals of devastating diseases like this year’s coronavirus,” she said.

The CBD report follows the release of other significant reports documenting the loss of biodiversity and widespread degradation of ecosystems and the natural world. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020, released 10 September, revealed a dramatic drop by over two-thirds in the world’s populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish over the past five decades.

This new biodiversity report comes on the opening day of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), a virtual event for the first time in its history. Leaders at UNGA are expected to review progress toward achieving the SDGs, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the CBD.


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