We are failing to save the planet’s species, finds UN report


As the planet plunges headlong into its sixth mass extinction, caused by humans, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate, and efforts to address this crisis, through a series of targeted goals, have largely failed.

In an effort to safeguard the world’s plants and animals and slow the extinction trend, the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were established at a conference in Japan in 2010 under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A hundred and seventy countries and regions subscribed to the goals, creating their own local conservation strategies.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5), just published by the CBD, offers a final report card on the progress of the 20 global biodiversity targets at the 2020 deadline, lessons learned, and best practices for getting back on track.

According to the GBO-5 report card, the global community has failed to meet even a single of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets completely, with only six goals “partially achieved” by the 2020 deadline. However, 89% of all national targets saw at least some progress.

A parrotfish off the coast of Australia’s Lord Howe Island. Significant progress has been made over the past decade in establishing marine protected areas globally. Image by John Turnbull / Flickr.

Of those 20 partially achieved targets, perhaps the most significant progress has been made towards Target 11, the establishment of marine and freshwater protected areas. This target aimed for countries to protect 17% of their surface and subsurface water and inland water areas, as well as 10% of their coastal and marine areas. Though goal may be met by the end of the year, critics say the protected areas are not necessarily in high-priority conservation areas (those with high levels of biodiversity or endemism) but rather those areas easiest for governments to assign a protected status.

Other partially achieved targets fall into the categories of preventing and controlling the spread of invasive species, creating biodiversity strategies and action plans, sharing information and knowledge, and mobilizing resources from many sectors and sources.

Some targets have seen little progress, including Target 3: eliminating, phasing out or reforming subsidies and other incentives potentially harmful to biodiversity. An estimated $500 billion in government subsidies potentially cause environmental harm, the report states. However, few countries have worked to identify these incentives, and “harmful subsidies far outweigh positive incentives in areas such as fisheries and the control of deforestation,” the report says.

“Progress has been made, but it has been insufficient to address the underlying drivers of [biodiversity] loss: climate change and exploitation, which are driven by broader consumption patterns,” David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity and an authorof the new GBO-5, said in a statement.

A Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), one of the rarest mammals in the world, in Ujung Kulon National Park. Fewer than 100 individuals remain in the wild. Image by Stephen Belcher/Dok. Balai Taman Nasional Ujung Kulon via International Rhino Foundation.

Recent reports on extinction and biodiversity declines are troubling. A new study indicates, that in the Neotropics, human activities such as overhunting, habitat destruction and fires have contributed to a 56% decline in species in mammal species since the 16 century.

More than 500 vertebrate species are on the brink of extinction, with populations of fewer than a thousand individuals, remaining, and WWF’s Living Planet Report, released this month, finds a 68% average decline in the populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish in the past 50 years, further highlighting the need for urgent action.

And amid these reports, a wave of extinction denial has emerged among many of the factions that also deny climate change. Scientists say this phenomenon may spike among these groups in response to the GBO-5 report.

A mother koala and her joey who survived the forest fires in Mallacoota, Australia. The 2019 fires in Australia burned one-fifth of Australia’s entire temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome, an area nearly the size of England. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

“From COVID-19 to massive wildfires, floods, melting glaciers and unprecedented heat, our failure to meet the Aichi Targets — to protect our home — has very real consequences,” said Inger Andersen, U.N. undersecretary-general and executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme. “We can no longer afford to cast nature to the side. Now is the time for a massive step up … If we do not, biodiversity will continue to buckle.”

This, Andersen says, will “further damage human health, economies and societies, with particularly dire impacts on indigenous communities.”

However, there are also many success stories highlighted in the GBO-5, and for each target both global and national successes are highlighted. Globally, for instance, some extinctions, including up to seven mammal and eighteen bird species, have been prevented by conservation efforts in the past decade, and the rate of deforestation has fallen globally by about a third compared to the previous decade.

For fisheries, although the overall trends are not good, in areas with good scientific stock assessments there have been improvements in fish stocks. “If you put in place the measures, they do work,” Cooper said.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is one of the mammals brought back from the brink of extinction this decade due to conservation efforts. Photo via Wikimedia Commons by J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS (CC BY 2.0).

The report outlines eight transitions needed to shift humanity away from “business as usual” toward “a society living in harmony with nature.” These transitions include the ways we use and protect land and forests; manage cities and infrastructure; manage fisheries and protect oceans; use freshwater; organize our agriculture and food supply systems; and tackle climate change.

“We know what needs to be done, what works and how we can achieve good results,” Andersen said. “If we build on what has already been achieved, and place biodiversity at the heart of all our policies and decisions — including in COVID-19 recovery packages — we can ensure a better future for our societies and the planet.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought international awareness to the connections between animals and human health and underscored the need to have an integrated approach to the management of human health, wildlife health and livestock health. But, Cooper says, we need to look not only at infectious diseases, but at all of the determinants of health, including how biodiversity supports the health of people through nutrition; and the psychological, physical, physiological, and even immunological benefits of green spaces.

Botanical diversity in a temperate rainforest in Washington state’s Olympic National Park, USA. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Three key messages from the report, according to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, United Nations assistant secretary-general and executive secretary of the CBD, are that government need to scale up national ambitions in support of the new Global Biodiversity Framework and mobilize all necessary resources, countries will need to make stronger efforts to “bring biodiversity into the mainstream of decision making”, the GBO-5 offers a positive outlook and presents a foundation that can be built upon.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is working on its Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will be adopted in Kunming, China, in May 2021. Proponents say they hope the biodiversity targets set forth by this new framework will build upon the successes and remedy the failures of the Aichi goals, turning the tide while there is still time.

“Looking forward, it is possible to reduce and even reverse biodiversity loss and by 2030 put us on a path of recovery towards that 2050 vision,” Cooper said, “but only with strong action across the board. And just as we have this window of a few years or this decade for action on climate change, same on biodiversity, and in fact, it’s also necessary to reduce the risk of future pandemics and improve health and well being .”


Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2020). Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. Montreal.

Banner image of an owl monkey by Rhett A. Butler.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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