In the early 19th century, when Europeans began to settle on the island of Tasmania, around 5,000 of the striped, dog-sized creatures known as Tasmanian tigers roamed the landscape.
Despite being apex predators in the food chain, the animals were shy and generally avoided humans. Nevertheless, a bounty for their skins was established as they were blamed for preying on the cows and sheep that the settlers brought with them. Many Tasmanian tigers were slain for these bounties, and the rest were eliminated by habitat loss and the introduction of wild dogs and new diseases.
Benjamin, the last known Tasmanian tiger, died in 1936, two months after the species gained protected status.
Dodos and mammoths are other well-known species that were pushed to extinction by human activity, but a vast number have likely disappeared without having ever been discovered in the first place.
Biodiversity, which is the variety of life on Earth, underpins the resources needed for the survival of life itself. However, species are becoming extinct faster than ever, and humans are largely to blame.
Between destroying habitats, releasing pollutants, changing the climate, and introducing non-native species that overtake native ones, we are currently putting around 1 million animal and plant species at risk of dying out. While biodiversity is essential to food production, such as through pollinators or microorganisms in the soil, land conversion for agriculture and other uses continues to be its greatest threat.
Resolving this will take global, coordinated action, which will soon take the form of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Coordinated by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an agency of the U.N., the framework will steer governments toward taking steps to protect their countries’ biodiversity.
The first draft of the framework was published in July 2021, but it will be further negotiated at the Conference of the Parties (COP15) currently scheduled for 2022, when every detail will be negotiated by representatives of the 196 parties to the Convention.
The CBD is a leading international treaty that coordinates governmental action for biodiversity, similar in importance to the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was formed in 1992 at the Earth Summit, a major U.N. conference that sparked global cooperation on sustainability and now oversees the conservation of Earth’s biodiversity and the sustainable and fair sharing of its genetic resources. All U.N. member states have ratified the treaty – except the U.S.
The Aichi Targets and the new biodiversity framework
At 2010’s COP10 held in Nagoya, Japan, the CBD adopted a decade-long plan for improving biodiversity conservation, known as the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020.
The plan included the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets – strategic benchmarks to be achieved by 2020, ranging from halving the rate of forest loss to the full integration of traditional knowledge into the CBD’s work.
But in September 2020, as the Targets reached their deadline, the CBD revealed in a sweeping report that none of the Aichi Targets had been fully met, and only six of the Targets were partially met.
“Not one Aichi Target will be fully met, so that, by itself, of the 20 targets, 10 years, we have failed.”
The draft of the new Post-2020 Framework includes a major new addition to help it achieve the level of conservation that the Aichi Targets did not: a sub-framework for monitoring and evaluation that brings certain indicators of progress to the fore to assist countries in prioritizing their efforts and tracking the effectiveness of their conservation work.
The 21 targets of the new draft framework are divided into three main sections: reducing pressure on biodiversity, using it to improve human life and developing the tools needed to reach these goals. Like its predecessor, it includes targets that call for the reduction of harmful subsidies and invasive alien species.
Other key new areas of the framework include:
- Addressing the three “levels” of biodiversity – diversity within genetics, species and ecosystems – in a balanced manner;
- Acknowledging a more holistic approach to conservation action that not only addresses its extent but also the integrity, quality, connectivity and sustainable management of all natural and semi-natural ecosystems;
- A new target on restoration; and
- Strengthening conservation finance to overcome current gaps and forthcoming effects of the COVID-19 pandemic through the efficient use of resources and commitment to mobilize more.
The draft targets also call for the conservation of 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial and marine habitat, the reduction of two-thirds of the pesticides lost to the environment and the elimination of plastic waste, to list a few. At least half of the negative impacts of biodiversity from all businesses should be reduced. Global food waste should be halved, too.
It also includes a significant shift in financing, such as cutting at least USD 500 billion in incentives that harm biodiversity every year, increasing financial resources for biodiversity by USD 200 billion annually, and raising financial flows to developing countries by at least USD 10 billion per year.
All of this money could help fund the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches, and a draft target calls for these measures to prevent 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide from being emitted every year (for reference, 33 gigatons of carbon dioxide were emitted in 2019).
But none of these targets are set in stone, and anything could change at COP15.
“We’re hoping that 90 percent of the framework is agreed upon and that only 10 percent has to be negotiated at COP15. But having said that, until the whole framework is adopted, everything is open,” says Jyothi Mathur-Filipp, the director of the implementation support division at the CBD.
So, why should the new framework fare better than the Aichi Targets? Mathur-Filipp says that back when the Aichi Targets were agreed upon in 2010, none of the vehicles needed to actually implement these goals had yet been created.
“We had no indicators, no review mechanism, no capacity-building strategy, no resource mobilization strategies,” she says. “All of these things came two years, four years, six years later.”
She is confident that the Post-2020 Framework will enjoy greater success because many of these implementation strategies will already be up and running when the framework is adopted. These include a monitoring framework, a strategy for mobilizing public and private funds, and an action plan for mainstreaming biodiversity into legislation.
Challenges and opportunities
Signatory countries to the CBD are required to outline their national plans for preserving biodiversity, which serve as the main vehicle for applying the agreement at the national level.
However, countries face several difficulties in enacting their biodiversity policies, according to Anja Gassner, science advisor to the Global Landscapes Forum and coordinator of the Trees on Farms for Biodiversity Project, who works with several nations to better execute their national plans.
Notably, national policies often are very ambitious but contain little in terms of actual actions and plans. An analysis of five countries in diverse regions shows that only 13 percent of their national biodiversity policies were related to on-the-ground implementation.
“[The CBD] is not very clear on the ‘how,’” says Gassner. “It’s ambitious. It says what we want, but it doesn’t really give a lot of guidance to the countries on the whole.”
“This then comes back to that fact that you need to get agreement amongst the 196 parties. The global discourse of biodiversity governance has been helpful in providing a common understanding of the biodiversity crisis. It has resulted in a global framework and a strategic vision, but what is needed is a direction that resonates with national and local actors.”
National priorities are important, Gassner believes. Environmental ministries tend to not have the same clout as, for example, finance ministries, especially in developing countries. In such cases, units dedicated to implementing national policies in accordance with the CBD might be staffed by a handful of government employees who also must fulfill their normal jobs.
This means units do not have the funding or time to travel to rural areas and communicate with local government agencies or groups that work with farmers and Indigenous people, conduct research on biodiversity, or carry out protection work.
“You need to essentially make a case to the finance minister of why what you do is essential for the national economy – often a very hard case to make for biodiversity,” says Gassner. “For climate change, it’s easier because it has a direct link to risks and economic meltdown.”
“Plus, climate change makes a lot more [economic] sense because of carbon becoming a tradable commodity. This is a language that speaks to ministries of finance and so it gets a lot more attention.”
ICRAF has advocated that the Post-2020 Framework better engage the productive sectors, particularly the agricultural sector, in the implementation of the Framework – as partners to conservation sectors.
It is clear that countries have to put greater effort into halting the loss of natural habitat, but the Framework needs to also recognize the importance of agricultural landscapes, says Gassner, as failure to do so will leave farmers and agricultural authorities without any mandate to contribute to biodiversity conservation, in turn leaving almost all of the world’s land-based economy out of the picture.
As of 2016, agricultural areas cover more than a third of the world’s arable land – yet of the Aichi Targets, only Target 7 is directly concerned with agriculture. Of the new draft framework, only Target 10 explicitly mentions agriculture, although others are indirectly related.
“Everything is interlinked,” says Gassner. “You have your flow of nutrients, flow of water, and you also have people moving in and out with the flows of the economy as well. You can’t just manage a landscape by separating it into different sectors and then use it. It makes absolutely no sense.”
Scientists have also linked the decline in biodiversity and degradation of natural habitats to humans’ increased exposure to potential pathogens. As biodiversity decreases, the species that tend to thrive – such as bats and rats – are more likely to host pathogens that can jump to humans. This is called a spillover event.
Likewise, forest clearance and the illegal wildlife trade can also increase exposure by facilitating interaction between humans and wild animals.
Mathur-Filipp says the COVID-19 pandemic could come to play a role in highlighting the importance of biodiversity and how its loss can harm humans.
“I believe that a lot of people and new generations have actually seen nature for the first time [because of the pandemic],” she says. “We’ve seen many more birds come back… There are leopards going through people’s backyards.”
“It’s never happened before because the world was never still, and nature never got a chance to just try and see how it could also live next to humans.”