Despite a wealth of biodiversity laws operating at every scale of governance, the world’s rich diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems is disappearing. The effects of land use change and over-extraction are exacerbated by changing weather patterns and more extreme climate events such as floods and wildfires. The Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted by 196 national governments in December 2022, must be implemented in a way that ensures that the world can protect nature wherever it will survive, including across political borders and in unfamiliar combinations.
The mountain mist frog is extinct. It used to be found, “calling its little heart out,” at the top of mountain peaks on cloud islands in Australia’s northern wet tropics, but it has not been seen for decades. Its disappearance, reported in the latest update to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, was probably the result of a combination of chytrid fungus—a disease that has destroyed many amphibian populations around the world—and temperature increases in its mountain habitat due to climate change. The little frog had nowhere to go.
The mountain mist frog is not alone in its fate. Despite well-established global and national biodiversity laws, the Earth is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and the first mass extinction event induced by a single species: humanity. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report establishes that more than one million species will be threatened with extinction in the coming decades, undermining critical ecosystem functions that humans rely on such as food provision, pollination, air filtration, and nature’s contribution to human health and wellbeing. The profound implications of species loss are apparent, for instance, in the way that the destruction of bison populations devastated the cultures, health, and independence of Native American peoples. Other examples include the collapse of Atlantic cod in waters off of Newfoundland, which left 30,000 people unemployed overnight, and the extinction of beavers in the United Kingdom (now being reversed through reintroduction projects), which removed ecological services from the landscape that are now estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of USD per annum, such as groundwater recharge, water filtration, erosion prevention, and flood protection. Non-human life depends on these functions too.
Plant, animal, and ecosystem declines are also being exacerbated by climate change. Almost 41 percent of IUCN Red List species are threatened by climate change, including as a result of sea level rise destroying coastal and island habitats and because changes in rainfall and temperature mean that important interactions (e.g., predator-prey relationships) are breaking down. These effects cause species to become extinct, decrease in abundance, become less resilient (e.g., to disease), or redistribute to more suitable climates—including cooler areas like upslope, deeper into the ocean, or polewards. A “universal redistribution of life on Earth” is already underway in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial realms and across political borders. This trend will create challenges for biodiversity conservation, particularly if a species must be defined as “native” to a political jurisdiction before it can qualify for protection under existing laws.
From December 7–19, 2022, parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity—the core multilateral environmental agreement—gathered in Montreal, Canada for the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP15). The focus of COP15 was to establish a new plan for “living in harmony with nature.” Humans depend on nature for livelihoods, wellbeing, economic activity, and the basic provisions that sustain life. In fact, the UN has estimated that more than half of global GDP relies directly on natural assets, and IPBES reported that more than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy and approximately 70 percent of cancer drugs incorporate natural products or synthetic products directly inspired by nature. COP15 thus had an urgent and crucial task: to develop a framework that is equipped (and then fully resourced and implemented) to protect these natural assets and reverse grim and accelerating trends in biodiversity loss, even as the climate changes and radically complicates that task.
The new Global Biodiversity Framework (the Framework) supersedes the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and will need to achieve a great deal more than its predecessor. Not a single one of the targets set under the previous Strategic Plan was achieved in full. In fact, over the lifetime of that plan, many more species became extinct and ecosystems in nearly one fifth of the world’s countries became at risk of collapse. In Australia alone, nineteen unique ecosystems are now experiencing potentially irreversible changes to species composition and ecological function, meaning, they are in the process of collapsing.
The Framework that was announced at the conclusion of COP15 is the first global biodiversity agreement to set quantitative targets for the protection of nature, including to protect 30 percent of the world’s land, inland waters, coasts, and oceans by 2030 (the so-called “thirty by thirty” target) and to reduce species extinctions by tenfold. The inclusion of these quantitative targets is welcome, as is the Framework’s improvements in recognizing the importance of First Nations and gender equity, but concerns have been expressed about the limitations in global funding commitments and the absence of quantitative measures for many of the Framework’s other targets. Nevertheless, the critical challenge is to ensure that the new Framework’s goals are fully achieved. On this point, we “simply cannot afford to fail.”
Reversing Biodiversity Decline and Loss
Existing laws create institutional structures, obligations, and authority to protect threatened species, habitats, national parks, reserves, and other conservation areas within typically static boundaries. Despite some successes, these strategies have been insufficient to reverse biodiversity decline. The World Wildlife Fund has measured an average decline in species populations of 69 percent since 1970—around the time that modern biodiversity laws were being introduced around the world—with far greater declines in some ecosystems (e.g., 83 percent in freshwater systems) and regions (e.g., 94 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean).
Threatened species protection is important, but it prioritizes effort at the most expensive and difficult point for conservation (i.e., immediately prior to extinction). As many more species become threatened, action to protect nature must begin well before species reach the edge of an existential cliff. Action to prevent a crisis is cheaper and far more likely to be successful than last-ditch attempts to restore something that has been lost. Similarly, protected areas play a crucial role, including in adaptation-oriented conservation, but conservation management is limited to the boundaries of those areas. What happens on and beyond their boundaries can have serious implications for conservation success within protected areas (described as “edge-effects,” activities such as land clearing on a protected area boundary can affect species abundance and habitat quality even up to a kilometer into the protected area). Similarly, species that do not respect legal (though often ecologically arbitrary) lines on a map—such as migratory birds, and animals that relocate to cooler habitats as the climate changes—may begin to shift, more often, beyond the reach of that protective tool.
From a legal perspective, conservation requires far more than protecting “pieces and pockets” of nature (i.e., specific populations and areas). A new focus may include protecting diverse characteristics of the “stage, not the actors;” that is, creating legal obligations to protect landscape features such as waterways, mountain tops, and a range of soil types, rather than specific animal populations or ecological communities.
Biodiversity laws and strategies will also need to focus on adaptive conservation objectives that look to the future rather than the past. For example, laws could be used to protect a wider range of species and habitats from both current and future threats, such as protecting polar bears from threats such as oil and gas developments as well as habitats that will become critical as Arctic ice retreats. Protected area laws could be directed at actively identifying and managing the most diverse places on Earth and the places to which many species will be moving to maximize the resilience and adaptability of those places, rather than just their walking paths and toilet blocks.
Protecting healthy pockets of habitat in industrial contexts such as forestry, biofuel production, and across mining tenements should also be incentivized to help nature flourish wherever it can be found. Incentives and mandates can be supplemented with market mechanisms that create new habitats where favorable conditions no longer occur naturally.
Since 2021, G7 leaders, Nobel Laureates, and more than eighty heads of state have advocated or committed to becoming “nature positive.” The concept is designed to shift the focus beyond harm minimization towards active ecological restoration and improvement. That kind of shift, echoed in the UN’s declaration of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, will be crucial to living in harmony with nature, rather than in a state of perpetual environmental triage.
Anticipating Radical Complexity (and Occasional Failure)
Climate change brings radical complexity to the task of conservation. For example, while conservation efforts tend to focus on protecting species in places where they have historically been found, rapidly shifting temperature and rainfall patterns mean that those places may no longer present suitable habitats. As a result, conservation efforts and laws must recognize some value in unfamiliar, novel ecosystems, and create means of protecting future habitats, along with the routes that species will need to travel to get there (“climate refugia” and “landscape connectivity”). Facilitating adaptation as the climate changes may also require introducing species to places where they have never been found before to avoid their extinction (“conservation introductions”). These complex decision-making contexts raise ethical, political, and technical challenges. Even the best-funded and most future-oriented efforts, even more than for traditional conservation efforts, will sometimes fail; this fact must drive an increased focus on learning rather than conservativism and blame-shifting.
Interacting Threats with the Possibility of Interacting Solutions
The twin crises of rapid and ongoing biodiversity loss and climate change are being recognized as inextricably linked by researchers, international bodies, and to some extent in multilateral negotiations. Substantial benefits are also being identified from efforts to address the two crises together. For example, climate mitigation strategies such as blue carbon, can be undertaken in a way that is nature positive. Blue carbon projects involve restoring marine and coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, saltmarshes, and kelp forests to capture and store greenhouse gases, while also restoring habitats, reducing marine pollution, and mitigating the intensity and coastal impacts of storm surges and sea level rise on human settlements. These kinds of nature based solutions to climate change may provide up to 37 percent of mitigation targets set under the Paris Agreement, with two thirds of the signatories to the Paris Agreement including nature-based solutions among their strategies for meeting their nationally-determined contributions. (Note: the term “nature-based solutions” is contested and risks creating the potential for “greenwashing,” human rights violations, and new threats to biodiversity.)
As the world’s population continues to rapidly urbanize, nature-based engineering in cities is also gaining support as a way of mitigating climate impacts such as heatwaves and severe flooding, while creating new types of habitats that offer refuge to plants, birds, and small animals—perhaps even the last remaining places of refuge in otherwise increasingly hostile landscapes (see e.g., City Biodiversity Index).
The Earth’s biodiversity is in freefall. Humanity and non-human life are rapidly running out of time to adapt as the climate changes. Many more species like the mountain mist frog will be lost unless international actors can produce a framework that is ambitious, future-oriented, measurable, and uncompromising, because “if not now, when?”
. . .
Dr. Phillipa McCormack is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Adelaide Law School at The University of Adelaide, South Australia. She researches climate change adaptation in law and policy with a particular focus on legal frameworks for biodiversity conservation and disaster preparedness.
Image Credits: Pixnio, Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service