Saving a planet is a complex business. World government is already a tricky concept but when you layer that over with the inability of ecosystems to speak for themselves and the concentration of biodiversity near the equator -far from centres of economic and political power- you get a process that has many actors and little influence beyond its power to persuade. I have talked previously about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Today I would like to talk about two groups that are focused on reversing trends in biodiversity loss: the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The first of these is a relatively new body set up by the United Nations to emulate the success of the IPCC while the latter has been around since 1948.
Conservation works as a ratchet to try to create a common understanding of how protected areas, species management and communication can contribute to a more stable future for biodiversity. The different meetings and working groups refer to each other, consolidate gains, stem losses and then move on to stronger conservation measures.
The IPBES is the brains of the endeavour. It looks to inform policy makers from around the world on the long term consequences of living in a world with constrained biodiversity. The job is made difficult by the fact that it is the wary species, the ones that nobody ever sees, that disappear first. The group’s goal is to prepare a global assessment of biodiversity and how it contributes to the quality of our life by May 2019. The first draft of this document will be available to government-appointed experts in 2017. The global assessment will help inform the United Nations on its current effort to make progress on the Convention of Biological Diversity, the Aichi targets. These targets are specific, measurable and due for the year 2020.
The IUCN is the voice and hands and feet of conservation. With over 1000 member organizations, it is a forum and coordinating body for governments, charitable organizations and businesses in relationship with nature. By encouraging each other and lobbying non-participants to take nature seriously, the standards for conservation are improved. The member organizations gather every 4 years to vote on motions that direct us to which bolts are most in need of tightening with conservation’s ratchet.
A sampling of motions passed at the latest World Conservation Congress in Hawaii shows some of the tension between consolidating gains and looking to protect biodiversity wherever it is found.
- Motion 53, affectionately known as the “ocean motion”, calls for the full protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. This is particularly audacious considering that most of the ocean is international water and only 1% of the oceans are currently under full protection. Still, the grounding for this value is quite strong, including those studies focused on maintaining fishery yields. It is worth noting that no equivalent motion was passed for land ecosystems in response to the idea that “Nature needs half”.
- Motion 26, the “no-go” motion, calls on governments, businesses and regulators to prohibit industry in protected areas. Though the original focus here was mining, the discussion at the Congress spread to fishing, forestry, agriculture, roads and pipelines. The six types of IUCN protected areas, each with different amounts of infrastructure and human activity, and the process of environmental assessment were key elements of the discussion. Ultimately, if activities or infrastructure that don’t match conservation objectives are permitted in an area , then the area is no longer protected.
These motions represent conservation-as-usual, seeking government control over an increasing portion of the earth’s surface with increasing effectiveness in eliminating barriers to biodiversity. Other motions took a different approach, such as:
- Motion 37 – supporting privately owned protected areas
- Motion 44 – identifying key biodiversity areas
- Motion 62 – integrating nature-based solutions for climate change with biodiversity conservation
- Motion 93 – connecting people with nature globally under the #NatureForAll initiative
These motions encourage the formation of protected areas per se but also something known as area-based conservation measures, which ultimately must be effective for nature but need not be the no-harvest, no-industry areas implied by the first two motions. Motion 93 is particularly interesting in breaking out of the international talk-shop approach, which has shown clear limitations in the climate change debate.
My Dad taught me to tighten the nuts on a car tire in a particular order so that it will be flush with the wheel. We must learn the right order with which to use conservation’s ratchet and make sure nature’s marvellous mechanisms continue to function.