staellite image on Aichi Prefecture, Japan

Why we fail to meet international biodiversity targets

Humanity has taken dominion and then wonders why we fail to meet international biodiversity targets.

The UN biodiversity initiatives that were the first international biodiversity targets began in Rio in 1992 and they were bold. 

Heads of government joined their environment ministers in committing to this new description of nature—initiatives to support and save the diversity of life.  

There was hope as the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) was born that species loss and habitat destruction could slow, perhaps even be halted.

Then it all went belly up.

Ever since the heady days of the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when diplomats and politicians came up with the Convention on Biological Diversity I have had this feeling that we had invented a fad.

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Nearly 20 years later, in October 2010, new international biodiversity targets were set. At the 10th Conference of the Parties meeting in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, a revised and updated Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, for the 2011-2020 period was declared with the following fanfare…

an overarching framework on biodiversity, not only for the biodiversity-related conventions, but for the entire United Nations system and all other partners engaged in biodiversity management and policy development.

UN Aichi Biodiversity Targets

A new set of targets for biodiversity. 

aerial image of the city of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture in Japan, where the latest international biodiversity targets were signed
Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan

A tacit admission that in two decades, the original convention had done little to combat biodiversity loss and habitat degradation. Instead, announce another decade to achieve new bold goals. 

In a separate post, we review reasons for biodiversity loss and provide a commentary from the sustainably FED perspective and suggest that loss is inevitable. But let’s run with the diplomats for a little while longer.

A decade on from Aichi and reports are out now that suggest almost all of those Aichi international biodiversity targets were not met. There was a movement towards some of them, in others, no change or further decline. 

This is rocket fuel for those who believe that the United Nations and other global collaborations are just a waste of time. Talk fests for the privileged to travel around the world to posh hotels and conference centres to have convoluted conversations that mean nothing.

Ugly diplomacy 

Just getting people together in the same room is a start but is not enough to declare success. 

The reality of course, is that in the decade since the Aichi targets were set, the human population has increased by 800 million, the global economy has increased by 24% (US$17,600 billion increase in global GDP), and food production has risen by 15% (cereal production up by 0.35 billion tonnes and livestock taking up 97% of the land mammal biomass). 

Oh yes, and the climate has changed dramatically in large parts of the world. We now see fires in places that haven’t seen fire in historical times. We now see wetlands drying not due to draining the catchments but due to changes in weather patterns. 

It is no surprise that the Aichi biodiversity targets were not reached. And that the best we could hope for was a movement towards them. 

International biodiversity targets or not?

All this begs the question of whether we should even have targets. Whether presenting desires for biodiversity outcomes in international forums actually makes any difference at all. 

The logic goes something like this.

Signing up for an obligation for international biodiversity targets will force individual countries to take legislative action themselves in order to make things happen within their jurisdictions. A peer pressure agreement.

Some countries have taken commitments seriously, some have used creative accounting to demonstrate some progress, and others have done nothing. 

Accounting is one of the biggest problems with this whole story. How do we account for something that is as diffuse, nebulous and hard to define as biodiversity? 

It’s easy to account for dollars. They exist as a currency to exchange for goods and services and can be converted to all sorts of other currencies. There are standard practices for understanding how to count, figure out debt and opportunity down the track. 

Biodiversity is not so easy. 

Biodiversity is a combination of the composition, function, and structure of assemblages of animals and plants. It’s a complex set of ideas. There’s no single currency to describe or measure its elements and characteristics. It can’t be defined by rare species or the total number of species, or the performance of individual processes. It’s a combination of all of these things. 

So we have no obvious accounting tool with which to make measurements against targets. There is even a question mark over whether or not an accounting target is worth setting. 

However, biodiversity is critical to our future. 

And in this instance, ‘our’ means individuals, societies, and humanity. All that biology wrapped up in species, assemblages and ecosystems is the engine of our food ecology and crucial for provisioning and regulating ecosystem services.

It makes sense to want to look after biodiversity. 

Indeed, humanity would be crazy not to.

So why are we failing?

Why we fail to meet international biodiversity targets

Take a look at these images from Google Earth of central NSW, Australia which has a population density of 8.6 people per km2, less really in this area as two-thirds of the population live in Sydney.

satellite image of farmland in NSW from 6,000m
Google Earth image of central NSW near Dubbo captured at a 6,000m height. The yellow line represents 50km.
satellite image of farmland in NSW from 1,000m
Close up of the same location this time from 1,000m and where the yellow line is 5km. 

Here are two more images, slightly greener on a similar scale, this time for central England with a population density of 281 per km2.

satellite image of farmland in England from 6,000m
Google Earth image of central England south of Birmingham captured at a 6,000m height. The yellow line represents 50km
satellite image of farmland in England from 1,000m
Close up of the same location this time from 1,000m and where the yellow line is 5km. 

When you look at these images the reason we fail to meet international biodiversity targets stares back at you. People have radically altered the face of the planet to create landscapes of agricultural production that we must have or we starve. It is very hard indeed to meet biodiversity targets when humans are not just occupying but altering just about every square meter of the landscape.

There will be complaints and arguments that we fail to meet targets because there is a lack of will, too much rhetoric and not enough commitment. Perhaps that there is no hope for resolution given the vested interests, greed and lack of empathy between nations and decision-makers.

No doubt these are factors.

But the real reason we don’t meet the targets is that they are too hard for a global population of people this large, with this big a footprint and a blind eye to the reality.

Take another look at those images. They are truly revealing.


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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