Blog by Professor Richard Gregory, Head of Monitoring Conservation Science at the RSPB, on a new paper published today by a group of international researchers in the journal Conservation Letters, that argues for a robust and ‘SMART’ goal for species in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

As if waking from a troublesome dream comes the realisation that humanity stands at a crossroads with regards to the legacy it leaves to future generations. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, the pressures driving this shift are intensifying, and the responses, while often brilliantly successful in themselves, have proven inadequate. Many species populations are in severe decline and as a result extinction risk is increasing.

Current extinction rates (i.e. numbers of species extinctions over time) are thought to be least 10–100 times greater than the natural background rates. Losses of this kind are important from an intrinsic perspective on the value of species persistence, but more broadly for the fundamental role that species populations play in the functioning of healthy ecological systems and in the provision of services, upon which we all rely.

In September 2018, researchers declared that the Spix’s macaw was extinct in the wild © Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots

Added to this has come the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shone a light on the ‘broken’ relationship between people and nature, and reminds us of the potentially profound consequences to our own well-being and to our economies that may result from the degradation of pristine habitats and our interaction with nature.

A robust goal for species

Species represent the most tangible and compelling unit of biodiversity we see around us and that connect to our lives. Keeping a track of their populations by simply counting or estimating their numbers keeps us honest and is a bellwether for the good health of the world around us. The loss of species populations, whether common or rare, is bad for nature and bad for people. There is increasing interest in recovering populations of species, even those that are not at immediate risk of extinction, because we know that common and abundant species are vital to healthy resilient ecosystems.

In our new paper, we argue for a bright star of ambition for species to be captured by the global biodiversity framework to be agreed by the 196 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2021.

The emerging biodiversity framework of the CBD, known as the Zero draft, was released in early 2020, and while both progressive and forward looking, it still lacks detail. It comprises 5 outcome goals - 3 relating to different levels of ecological organization (ecosystems, species and genetic diversity), and 2 relating to the contribution biodiversity makes to people through its sustainable use and access and benefit sharing.

In addition, the framework proposes 20 bold action targets to achieve these goals. There is much to applaud in the Zero draft, and it captures new thinking, but sadly, we have been here before. We are particularly concerned that the current species goal, as defined in the Zero draft is ambiguous, difficult to monitor, and could result in perverse outcomes - making things worse rather than better. We are keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The importance of SMART

Two sets of previous global targets for biodiversity have come and gone. One to achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 passed us by and none of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets set for 2020 will be met in full. This isn’t a great record. Part of the reason for this failure is that the targets themselves have not been very ‘SMART’. We have demonstrated previously that ‘SMARTer’ biodiversity targets have achieved demonstrably more progress. It is vital we get the right this time around.

By SMART we mean: Specific (target sets out clear and well-defined objectives - e.g., quantified percentages, precisely defined terms, etc.); Measurable (progress toward the target can be assessed using data already available or feasible to mobilize - e.g. quantitative indicators exist or are realistic to produce); Ambitious (target is stretching and aims sufficiently high to achieve the overall objective to halt biodiversity loss); Realistic (target can feasibly be achieved considering the time frame, practicalities, plausible funding); and Timebound (target date is set with associated milestones as appropriate).

There is reason for optimism too as a growing body of evidence shows that conservation actions, when well-targeted, planned and executed, and adequately resourced, can prevent extinctions species, slow the rate at which species are driven towards extinction, and halt and reverse population declines of threatened species. We should not be fearful or daunted by a seemingly ambitious target, rather we should be energised and focussed.

A new goal

Given the limitations we identify, we propose the following wording for a species-focused goal, explaining both our reasoning and how progress should be monitored. To reach this goal, we must halt further extinctions, reduce the extinction risk of those species that are threatened, and recover and maintain populations of species in their native ranges at levels to ensure their survival, and the continued functioning of ecosystems.

This means taking decisive action to put biodiversity “on a path to recovery” by 2030 and “living in harmony with nature” by 2050. A SMART goal for species conservation is a fundamental building brick in achieving those vital ambitions.

We highly recommend this form of words to the Parties to the CBD, who have the responsibility of finalising the post-2020 framework in 2021, and setting us on the right track for nature and people.

 “Human-induced species extinctions are halted from 2020 onwards, the overall risk of species extinctions is reduced by 20% by 2030 and is zero by 2050, and the population abundance of native species is increased on average by 20% by 2030 and returns to 1970 values by 2050.”

Reference: Williams BA, Watson JE, Butchart SHM, Ward M, Brooks TM, Butt N, Bolam FC, Stuart SN, Mair L, McGowan PJK, Gregory R, Hilton-Taylor C, Mallon D, Harrison I, Simmonds JS. 2020. A robust goal is needed for species in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Conservation Letters. e12778.

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