Ecosystems vital to realising UN targets to protect and preserve nature

Media release

17 August 2021

A Deakin University conservation scientist says the United Nations' (UN) global vision for living in harmony with nature by 2050 will not succeed without a strong focus on sustaining ecosystems.

Last month, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity released the first draft of a new global biodiversity framework designed to preserve and protect nature. The post-2020 framework will be negotiated in October by representatives of 196 countries at the Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Kunming, China.

In a paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, Deakin Centre for Integrative Ecology's Professor Emily Nicholson, along with an international group of researchers from universities, government and non-government organisations, argues that the framework’s indicators on ecosystems are not fit for purpose and so will not provide a clear picture of how all ecosystems are changing worldwide.

"Sustaining ecosystems is central to meeting goals for species and the benefits nature provides to people," Professor Nicholson said.

"Ecosystems not only support species and natural places we love, they provide us with clean air, water, food, recreation and cultural identity. They also provide the basis for our medicines and sustain our physical and mental health.

"The draft framework seeks to reverse loss in ecosystem area and integrity, but this is not enough. The goal must also ensure that the collapse of ecosystems is prevented, just as a species goal must prevent extinctions."

Dr Thomas Brooks, study co-author and Chief Scientist of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the world’s largest environmental union, said the UN framework provided an opportunity to shift our thinking about ecosystems as being complementary to all other goals for biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people.

"Maintaining or restoring healthy ecosystems, in turn, facilitates achievement of these other goals," he said.

The research team reviewed 28 indicators that measure progress towards ecosystem goals. They found significant gaps in the types of ecosystems that can be tracked and components of the goals.

"We have indicators that can track loss of biodiversity generally, for example, where land use is changing. But we don’t have indicators that tell us how particular ecosystems are becoming degraded globally and losing the species and functions that make them unique," Professor Nicholson said.

"The scientific basis is there, but data collection, processing and analysis is still catching up.

"The next 3-5 years will be key in making it possible to track ecosystem integrity. To make the most of the coming advances, the UN must make the monitoring framework a living document that can embrace new indicators once we know they are fit for purpose."

Given the rate of biodiversity loss globally, with 75 per cent of our planet’s land significantly altered by people and around one million species facing extinction, Professor Nicholson said the new post-2020 goals provide a critical opportunity for world leaders to set a clear agenda for sustaining all ecosystems into the future.

"We can meet the goal through carefully designed targets, focussing on stopping further loss and degradation of ecosystems and positive actions to restore them,' she said.

"But these action targets need to be clearly linked with the outcomes we seek or the goal will not be met."

The paper, Scientific foundations for an ecosystem goal, milestones and indicators for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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