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The World Is Failing To Meet Its Biodiversity Targets, But Not Everything Is Hopeless

Cheer up: humans at least seem to care about biodiversity.

The World Is Failing To Meet Its Biodiversity Targets, But Not Everything Is Hopeless
[Top Photo: Flickr user Ben Britten]

A recent World Wildlife Fund report showed just how completely human beings have messed up things for animals. Over the last 40 years, we’ve managed to kill off roughly half the animal kingdom through a combination of exploitation, habitat destruction, and climate change.

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But what about the future? Can we do any better by animals and their environment? It’s possible to be just a little optimistic after reading a recent paper in the journal Science. While it says we’re falling short of goals to improve biodiversity–or the variety of life in the natural world–it does offer some positive signs.

Flickr user Sarah Oosterveld

The paper looks at progress towards the “Aichi Targets”–20 goals agreed by 194 nations in 2010. They cover everything from awareness of biodiversity issues, to the sustainability of fishing stocks, and have a deadline of 2020. The paper crunches data from 55 independent sources and offer a sort of mid-term report card.

The bad news first. The data shows over-consumption of fish and freshwater; a failure to reduce the level of “excess nutrients” that pollute waterways; and no gains on “invasive species” that harm native species. “Our projections indicate no significant improvement or a worsening situation by 2020, relative to 2010,” explains the paper, discussing the “underlying state of biodiversity”.

We’re going to miss target 5, which sets a goal halving the loss of natural habitats like forests. Fish stocks won’t be sustainably harvested (target 6). And we are unlikely to protect 10% of all marine areas (target 11). (Though the U.S. did just create the world’s largest ocean reserve, in the Pacific).

“The pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems are mounting and there is a real urgency in tackling them,” says lead author Derek Tittensor, in an email. “The decline of natural habitat on the Earth’s surface is reflective of how much our species have transformed the planet, and the increasing encroachment on wild animal populations.”

Flickr user Eric Chan

There is reason for hope. Roughly two-thirds of “response indicators,” showing how humans are approaching biodiversity, are positive, with the rest showing no negative trend. So, we do seem to care. We’re protecting more area than before (target 11), introducing more certification systems for fisheries, forests ad farming. There’s more research into biodiversity (target 19), with scientists beginning to put economic values to gains and losses. And governments are beginning to account for biodiversity in their reporting (target 2).

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Humans are also becoming more aware of biodiversity issues (target 1). The paper cites the Biodiversity Barometer, a survey of 6,000 people in six countries. “Public awareness of biodiversity in the four headline countries (Germany, France, U.K. and USA) has risen since 2010 and is projected to continue to rise until 2020,” it says.

“For me, the increase in the number of fisheries that are part of a sustainability certification scheme, and the area of forest that is certified, really show an engagement with biodiversity issues,” says Tittensor, a marine scientist with the UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Center. “The success of these schemes is driven by public awareness and actively seeking out products that are sustainability certified. This reflects a growing awareness of the issues [and an] on-the-ground effect.”

Nobody could suggest life’s peachy in the natural world. But it’s not all terrible. Things may get better in the years ahead.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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