Biodiversity: from conservation science to action

11 09 2010


About 3 weeks ago I blogged about Guillaume Chapron‘s vision to notch up conservation implementation around the globe. After that little piece Guillaume invited me and a few others (including one of Australia’s own conservation gurus, Hugh Possingham) to co-author a piece on the new Nature Network‘s ‘Soapbox Science‘ blog. The Soapbox Science blog is:

“… a new group blog, covering the whole of science. Over the coming months, we’ll be inviting researchers from all over the world to write one-off posts. The subjects may be controversial, opinionated, speculative, or just plain interesting, and may be written by any scientist with something to say.”

We managed to grab the first post in this endeavour, so I reproduce it here for readers. Enjoy!

Ecosystem degradation and species extinction rates are steadily accelerating, mainly as a result of unbounded human population growth, extravagant consumption patterns and associated land and sea degradation. Researchers are pushing science forward in an attempt to reverse the biodiversity ‘crisis’. In their papers they systematically stress how their results can serve to enhance conservation management or implement new corrective actions to reduce biodiversity loss. Still, they are becoming increasingly frustrated that their published research is having little, if any impact in halting the ongoing sixth mass extinction. Everything remains purely theoretical and is not leading to direct action.

It is now time for action. This autumn, we will ask G20 governments to demonstrate their genuine commitment to tackling the biodiversity crisis by immediately undertaking at least 100 science-based actions that we are in the process of compiling.

In so doing we are following recommendations from our funding agencies. Indeed, most funding agencies today require applicants to emphasize the conservation relevance of the proposed research project in any requests for financial support. For example, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas) states that its mission is to promote and support basic and need-driven research for environmental issues; one of the Australian Research Council‘s four National Research Priorities is research promoting “an environmentally sustainable Australia”; one of the Natural Environment Research Council of the United Kingdom’s strategic goals is “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change and the increasing pressures on natural resources”; and one of the U.S.’ National Science Foundation Investment Priorities is to “foster research that improves our ability to live sustainably on Earth”.

With many governments stressing their strong commitment to science-based environmental policies, we could hope to reverse, or at last greatly impede the biodiversity crisis. All the conditions appear to be met. Still, it does not seem to be happening and, in fact, we often observe that political, social and above all, economic considerations prevail instead.

A striking example was provided last July by French Secretary of State for Ecology Chantal Jouanno, who announced that France would not invest in any more restoration efforts for the Pyrenean brown bear (Ursus arctos), which number fewer than 20 individuals. Extensive scientific research shows that this population is not viable without intervention, while it is known that bears have a marginal impact on sheep farming compared to other economic and environmental factors. European agreements oblige France to sustain the bear population, yet the French government believes that the political costs of reintroducing more bears outweighs the political advantages of acting and, therefore, ignores scientific recommendations.

At the same time, the French government advertises its commitment to “meet the biodiversity challenge”. For example, last March the Fondation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité (FRB) sponsored a special issue of Nature Collections focusing on biodiversity. One of the missions of the FRB is to “promote dissemination and support the use of research results and scientific expertise, particularly among economic actors, governments and biodiversity managers”.

Are governments willing to use research results for biodiversity conservation only when it does not disturb current affairs, which means in reality almost never? Can governments do more than run glossy advertisements to “meet the biodiversity challenge”? Such a cynical view of governance is likely enough to explain why governments routinely propose environmental goals that are never met and why the effort towards meeting them is often less than the effort of talking about them.

Sadly the Pyrenean bear case is far from being unique. In 2002, 188 countries launched a global initiative, Biodiversity Target 2010, to achieve by this year a “significant” reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss. Media coverage was then enthusiastic about the coming end of the biodiversity crisis. However, by 2009, news that this target was unlikely to be met started to appear in the mainstream media, and in May 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) confirmed that signatories had failed to meet its target to achieve any significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss. Why did we fail? Are we unable to reach governments or are governments just not listening?

To find out, we are currently building with preeminent conservation researchers a list of 100 actions that if implemented would have an immediate positive effect on biodiversity protection in G20 countries. If you have published peer-reviewed research that should have had consequences on policies but had not due to any political blockade, then consider joining this project by emailing Guillaume. This initiative is called Biodiversity100 biodiversity-100-tasks-campaign and is run in association with The Guardian.

We are looking for actions that: (1) contribute to protecting a particular endangered species or ecosystem, (2) may be politically costly to implement because they are opposed by some interest groups, and (3) are strongly and widely supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. These actions should also be ‘SMART’: i.e., Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

Our objective is not to build another list of charismatic animals to save. Our objective is instead to bring science back to the centre of policy making. In many cases, whether dealing with species, habitats or ecosystems, scientific research is now strong enough to guide informed courses of action.

If an endangered plant or animal population has become extremely small in size, then individuals should be reintroduced to achieve minimum viable population size. If a chemical threatens a species, then this chemical should be banned. If development threatens a critical ecosystem, then development should be halted, modified or moved elsewhere. We do not contend that this campaign will solve the global biodiversity crisis, and we do not want to create the impression that, by implementing these 100 tasks, the problem of biodiversity loss would be under control. We just expect a clear signal from politicians that they are committed to resolving biodiversity issues and do something concrete to counter the problem.

Next October, the same countries that agreed on the CBD 2010 target will meet in Japan. Talks will not focus on immediate actions but rather on developing a revised biodiversity target for 2020, a vision for 2050, and better biodiversity indicators. While more research on biodiversity indicators is needed, we are critically in short supply of indicators that decision makers are willing to enact.

With support from The Guardian, we will ask governments to sign this list of 100 actions before the next meeting of the Convention for Biological Diversity. Whether or not they agree will reveal if they consider environmental research as a basis for policy making or just as a kind of brain-powered greenwash. Only two months before knowing. Get involved and stay tuned.

Guillaume Chapron, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Raphaël Arlettaz, University of Bern, Switzerland

Luigi Boitani, University of Rome, Italy

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, The University of Adelaide, Australia

Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland, Australia



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