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We are failing to save the planet’s species, finds UN report

Owl monkey. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • In an effort to slow the ongoing sixth mass extinction and safeguard the world’s plants and animals, 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were established in 2010. According to a recently released U.N. report, not one goal was met completely.
  • Little progress has been made towards eliminating, phasing out or reforming subsidies and other incentives potentially harmful to biodiversity. An estimated $500 billion in government subsidies potentially cause environmental harm, the report states.
  • The establishment of the target area of marine and freshwater protected areas has been nearly met. Some extinctions, including up to seven mammal and eighteen bird species, have been prevented by conservation efforts in the past decade.
  • Looking to the future, the report outlines eight transitions needed to shift humanity away from “business as usual” toward “a society living in harmony with nature.” However, “action is needed now.”

As the planet plunges headlong into its sixth mass extinction, caused by humans, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. Global targets to slow this alarming trend have not been reached, according to a U. N. report.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5), just published by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), offers a final report card on the progress of the 20 the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, established in 2010 under the CBD in order to stop biodiversity loss and preserve essential ecosystem services.

According to the GBO-5 report card, not one goal was met completely, however, 89% of all national targets saw at least some progress.

The most significant progress was made in the categories of establishing marine and freshwater protected areas, preventing and controlling the spread of invasive species, creating biodiversity strategies and action plans, sharing information and knowledge, and mobilizing resources from many sectors and sources.

Some targets have seen little progress, including eliminating, phasing out or reforming subsidies and other incentives potentially harmful to biodiversity. An estimated $500 billion in government subsidies potentially cause environmental harm, the report states. However, few countries have worked to identify these incentives, and “harmful subsidies far outweigh positive incentives in areas such as fisheries and the control of deforestation,” the report says.

On a positive note, biodiversity values have been incorporated into the national accounting systems of over 100 countries, addressing some of the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, the undervaluing of ecosystem services and hidden costs exploitative commodity supply chains.

A Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), one of the rarest mammals in the world, in Ujung Kulon National Park. Fewer than 100 individuals remain in the wild. Image by Stephen Belcher/Dok. Balai Taman Nasional Ujung Kulon via International Rhino Foundation.

Recent reports on extinction and biodiversity declines are troubling. A new study indicates, that in the Neotropics, human activities such as overhunting, habitat destruction and fires have contributed to a 56% decline in species in mammal species since the 16th century.

More than 500 vertebrate species are on the brink of extinction, with populations of fewer than a thousand individuals, remaining, and WWF’s Living Planet Report, released this month, finds a 68% average decline in the populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish in the past 50 years, further highlighting the need for urgent action.

And amid these reports, a wave of extinction denial has emerged among many of the factions that also deny climate change. Scientists say this phenomenon may spike among these groups in response to the GBO-5 report.

A mother koala and her joey who survived the forest fires in Mallacoota, Australia. The 2019 fires in Australia burned one-fifth of Australia’s entire temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome, an area nearly the size of England. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

“From COVID-19 to massive wildfires, floods, melting glaciers and unprecedented heat, our failure to meet the Aichi Targets — to protect our home — has very real consequences,” Inger Andersen, U.N. undersecretary-general and executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme said in a statement. “We can no longer afford to cast nature to the side. Now is the time for a massive step up … If we do not, biodiversity will continue to buckle.”

This, Andersen says, will “further damage human health, economies and societies, with particularly dire impacts on indigenous communities.”

However, there are also many success stories highlighted in the GBO-5, and for each target, both global and national successes are highlighted. Globally, for instance, some extinctions, including up to seven mammal and eighteen bird species, have been prevented by conservation efforts in the past decade.

The rate of deforestation has fallen globally by about a third compared to the previous decade and the protected areas of the planet have expanded significantly over the past decade, from about 10 % to 15% terrestrially and from about 3% to 7% in marine areas. Key biodiversity areas have seen a 15% increase in protection.

For fisheries, although the overall trends are not good, in areas with good scientific stock assessments there have been improvements in fish stocks. “If you put in place the measures, they do work,” David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the CBD and an author of the GBO-5 report said in a recorded press statement.

A parrotfish off the coast of Australia’s Lord Howe Island. Significant progress has been made over the past decade in establishing marine protected areas globally. Image by John Turnbull / Flickr.

A key target in the GBO-5 is the integration and respect of Indigenous and local communities’ traditional knowledge, innovations and practices in the realm of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Though there has been “an increase in the recognition of the value of traditional knowledge…both in global policy fora and in the scientific community” the report states, this target has not been met due to the lack of implementation of this knowledge into legislation and the underrepresentation of indigenous people and communities in these processes.

Recent actions by Costa Rica are touted as an example of progress towards this target. In 2018, the country established a formal process for consultation with Indigenous peoples with regard to any legislative bill that may affect them. The mechanism was created under the guidance of 22 Indigenous peoples’ representatives.

“In 2018 great progress was made thanks to indigenous peoples’ fight for their rights. Of particular importance were the executive decree for the consultation mechanism,” Carlos Camacho-Nassar an analyst for the certification of Indigenous rights, wrote for the human rights organization the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) in 2019.

“Even if is true that in 2018 the government of Costa Rica approved an indigenous consultation mechanism… you can not say Costa Rica is a success history,” Camacho-Nassar told Mongabay in an email. “On the contrary, violation of indigenous rights, especially the rights to land and territory, the killing of indigenous leaders are not investigated by the State, and all rights to auto-determination concerning the management of their lands and natural resources are violated every day… it is very dangerous to place biodiversity as successful while people’s rights are violated, especially indigenous rights.”

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is one of the mammals brought back from the brink of extinction this decade due to conservation efforts. Photo via Wikimedia Commons by J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS (CC BY 2.0).

The report outlines eight transitions needed to shift humanity away from “business as usual” toward “a society living in harmony with nature.” These transitions include the ways we use and protect land and forests; manage cities and infrastructure; manage fisheries and protect oceans; use freshwater; organize our agriculture and food supply systems; and tackle climate change.

“They’re all needed in combination,” Cooper said. For example, “improving agricultural productivity and reducing consumption waste is necessary to provide the space for some of the other measures here on conservation and restoration, which in turn of course, is essential as part of the solution on climate change.”

“We know what needs to be done, what works and how we can achieve good results,” Andersen said. “If we build on what has already been achieved, and place biodiversity at the heart of all our policies and decisions — including in COVID-19 recovery packages — we can ensure a better future for our societies and the planet.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought international awareness to the connections between animals and human health and underscored the need to have an integrated or a “one health” approach to the management of human health, wildlife health and livestock health.

“We need to look at all of the determinants of health, not only infectious diseases but how biodiversity supports healthy people through nutrition,” Cooper said, ‘[and] how biodiversity supports people through providing green spaces and the psychological and physical and physiological, and even immunological benefits that this brings.”

Botanical diversity in a temperate rainforest in Washington state’s Olympic National Park, USA.  Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Three key messages from the report, according to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, United Nations assistant secretary-general and executive secretary of the CBD, are that government need to scale up national ambitions in support of the new Global Biodiversity Framework and mobilize all necessary resources, countries will need to make stronger efforts to “bring biodiversity into the mainstream of decision making”, the GBO-5 offers a positive outlook and presents a foundation that can be built upon.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is working on its Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will be adopted in Kunming, China, in May 2021. Proponents say they hope the biodiversity targets set forth by this new framework will build upon the successes and remedy the failures of the Aichi goals, turning the tide while there is still time.

“Looking forward, it is possible to reduce and even reverse biodiversity loss and by 2030 put us on a path of recovery towards that 2050 vision,” Cooper said, “but only with strong action across the board. And just as we have this window of a few years or this decade for action on climate change, same on biodiversity, and in fact, it’s also necessary to reduce the risk of future pandemics and improve health and well being.”


Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2020). Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. Montreal.

Banner image of an owl monkey by Rhett A. Butler.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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