Bending the curve of biodiversity loss

Plant and animal species across the world are steadily disappearing due to human activity. A major new IIASA-led study suggests that without ambitious, integrated action combining conservation and restoration efforts with a transformation of the food system, turning the tide of biodiversity by 2050 or earlier will not be possible.

Biodiversity, the variety and abundance of species, along with the extent and quality of the ecosystems they call home, has been declining at an alarming rate for many years. It is clear that we cannot allow the current trend to continue. If it does, there will simply not be enough nature left to support future generations. While ambitious targets have been proposed, practical issues such as feeding the Earth’s growing human population could make reaching such targets a challenge.

The study, which has been published in Nature and forms part of the latest World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Living Planet Report, for the first time set out to explore biodiversity targets as ambitious as a reversal in global biodiversity trends and shed light on what integrated future pathways to achieving this goal might entail.

For global trends of terrestrial biodiversity as affected by land use change to stop declining and start recovering by 2050 or earlier, the researchers say that action is needed in two key areas:

  • Bold conservation and restoration efforts together with increased management effectiveness, will have to rapidly be stepped up. The study assumes that protected areas quickly reach 40% of global terrestrial areas. This should happen in tandem with large efforts to restore degraded land (reaching about 8% of terrestrial areas by 2050 in the study scenarios) and land use planning efforts that balance production and conservation objectives on all managed land. Without such efforts, declines in biodiversity may only be slowed down rather than halted and any potential recovery would remain slow.
  • Food system transformation: As bold conservation and restoration efforts alone will likely be insufficient, additional measures are needed to address global pressures on the food system. Efforts to bend the curve of global terrestrial biodiversity include reduced food waste, diets that have a lower environmental impact, and further sustainable intensification and trade.

Integrated action would however need to be taken in both areas simultaneously to bend the biodiversity loss curve upward by 2050 or earlier.

Michael Obersteiner, an IIASA researcher and Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, says: “In a scenario with increased conservation and restoration efforts alone, almost half of biodiversity losses estimated in the counterfactual business-as-usual scenario could not be avoided, a bending was not observed for all models, and when it did occur, it was often only in the second half of the 21st century.

“In addition, we found that bold conservation and restoration efforts alone might increase the price of food products, thereby potentially hampering future progress on eliminating hunger.”

Conversely, scenarios that combined increased conservation and restoration efforts with efforts to transform the food system showed that opportunities for ambitious conservation and restoration efforts were larger, and potential adverse food security impacts defused, thereby securing a bending of global trends in global terrestrial biodiversity as affected by land use change by 2050. 

Finally, such transformative change in food and land use systems would also deliver significant co-benefits such as a large contribution to ambitious climate mitigation targets, reduced pressure on water resources, reduced excess of reactive nitrogen in the environment, and health benefits.

According to the authors, a true reversal of biodiversity declines will however likely necessitate an even broader set of actions, addressing biodiversity loss jointly with climate change.

“If unmitigated, emerging threats to biodiversity such as climate change and biological invasions may become as important as land-use change – the largest biodiversity threat to date – in the future. A true bending of biodiversity losses will necessitate ambitious climate change mitigation that exploits synergies with biodiversity, rather than further eroding biodiversity,” says Andy Purvis, professor at the Imperial College London, and researcher at the National History Museum in the UK.

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