18 Sep 2020

Reflections on the fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook: we need to make this second chance count

This week, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) published the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5) – a final and damning report card on the progress made against the 2020 ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’, making it clear that while the last UN decade on biodiversity has failed, this coming decade on ecosystem restoration cannot.

Orange-bellied Parrot, a species brought back from the brink since CBD was founded © JJ Harrison/ Wikimedia Commons
Orange-bellied Parrot, a species brought back from the brink since CBD was founded © JJ Harrison/ Wikimedia Commons
By Alex Dale

These targets, set ten years ago by the Parties to the CBD, outlined the framework for action required by all countries for the period 2011-2020 as part of a strategic plan to save the planet’s biodiversity. The assessment period is now up, the grades are in and spoiler alert: we’re going to have to resit the class.

The GBO-5’s top line makes for grim reading. Overall, it is clear that the world collectively failed to meet the targets set in 2010. None of the 20 targets were achieved in full, and only six were even partially achieved. In the meantime, biodiversity continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate, with the WWF’s Living Planet report, published five days before GBO-5, estimating a decline in global wildlife populations averaging 68% since 1970.

The headlines in the press this week have been dramatic, but you could hardly call them sensationalised.  Humans are exploiting and destroying nature on an unprecedented scale. The planet is at a crossroads. A lost decade for nature.

Yet while biodiversity loss is finally attracting the attention of the mainstream press, much of it is hollow noise; it is still seen as a niche issue across most sectors in government and society. However, though the headline statistics are catastrophic, dig deeper into the report and you will unearth underlying signs of hope.

In particular, these come from evidence in the report deriving from birds. Even a superficial reading of the assessment shows that it draws heavily on indicators and analyses based on bird data, many of which were provided by BirdLife. Over half the targets quote research and information on birds in the assessment of whether the target was met, which reaffirms what we have long known – due to their wide range and sensitivity to environmental changes, birds are excellent biodiversity indicators. By studying them, we gain insights into the health of our planet and can take, or advocate for, action before it is too late.

And despite its big picture bleakness, GBO-5 also flags conservation success stories we can build upon – of which just under half relate to birds. These stories – which shine a light on “areas showing particular progress” – cover a range of topics, from successful cases of eradication of invasive alien species from islands, to protection of Key Biodiversity Areas, extinctions prevented, and mobilisation of citizen science data. There is plenty of inspiration to draw from within these stories, but we can only make inroads into tackling the bigger picture if these various activities and efforts take place within a global framework where governments not only commit to appropriate targets, but are held accountable to meeting them by implementing the changes required.

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These will be considerable. While the UN warns that we need to address the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss by 2030 to prevent irreplaceable damage, the 2050 Vision of living in harmony with nature is still attainable – but it will require large-scale transformative changes to the way we humans interact with nature.

The GBO5 itself sets out a series of transitions required – including the need to transform production systems for agriculture, forestry and fishing, overhaul our consumption patterns and continue to address other pressures, such as over-exploitation and pollution.

Fortunately, there exists a potential mechanism for these changes to take place – the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15) next year, where the post-2020 global biodiversity framework – essentially the successor to the Aichi Targets – will be discussed and agreed upon by the world’s governments.  To support the development of this framework, our own State of the World’s Birds publication: Birds and Biodiversity Targets, launches on 30th September. Using insights from our research on birds, we take an in-depth look at the successes and failures in meeting the Aichi targets, and outline what the post-2020 framework needs to achieve to avoid replicating the shortcomings of its predecessor.

Between now and COP15, the BirdLife Partnership will be advocating on the world stage to ensure that the next set of targets are fit and proper – and will be effectively implemented in the UN ‘Decade of Action’ that is to follow. We need to make the most of this second chance, as next time may be too late for a third.