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Biodiversity efforts unlikely to succeed without ‘transformative’ changes in the way humanity uses the planet’s resources, says expert panel of researchers in 23 countries

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A new report says that the long timelines involved in restoring and maintaining natural habitats mean countries must act now to put global biodiversity on a path to recovery by midcentury.RAUL ARBOLEDA/Getty Images

Global efforts to halt species loss by protecting 30 per cent of Earth’s marine and land area by 2030 – a target at the focus of international negotiations set for later this year – are unlikely to succeed without “transformative” parallel changes in the way humanity uses the planet’s resources, an expert report has found.

While protecting habitat is essential for conserving nature as a general principle, the report highlights the growing body of evidence that suggests that multiple, interlocking threats to global biodiversity need to be tackled in a more comprehensive and internationally collaborative way to rescue the planet from a human-caused mass extinction over the coming decades.

The report, authored by more than 50 researchers in 23 countries, examines the scientific foundation of the proposed goals for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement to which Canada is a signatory.

When representatives of participating countries gather for a UN biodiversity summit in China this April, those goals are intended to take the convention past 2020, the year that a previous set of targets expired. At the core of the plan is the goal, sometimes referred to as “30 by 30,″ for what percentage of their territory countries should be setting aside for protection by the end of the current decade.

The authors of the new report say the goal is an important one but on its own is not sufficient to arrest the degradation of ecosystems, because it does not deal directly with several threats to biodiversity beyond loss of habitat, including pollution, climate change, overharvesting and invasive species.

“The reasons why those things happen are fundamentally social and economic,” said Andrew Gonzalez, a conservation biologist at McGill University in Montreal and a co-leader of the report, which was released on Wednesday.

Dr. Gonzalez took on the role through his affiliation with GEO BON, an international biodiversity observation network. He added that the organization of the global economy around resource extraction and trade, without factoring in consequences to the biosphere, are unsustainable and detrimental to both people and nature in the long term.

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Even the approximately 40 per cent of the planet’s area that is used mainly to supply human needs should be managed in a way that takes nature into account. To that end, the report stresses the importance of ending subsidies in agriculture and other sectors that incentivize harming the environment.

“Right now, there’s no effort to align our modes of production and consumption with the status of ecosystems and the way they function,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

The report includes a series of recommendations that include better co-ordination of conservation efforts at local, regional and national scales with frequent assessments of the progress being made. The authors noted that most sampling of biodiversity is conducted in places that are within 2.5 kilometres of a road, and that approximately 93 per cent of the world’s biodiversity remains unmeasured. To remedy the situation, the report recommends investment in a global monitoring system, along with better tools to forecast trends.

“Monitoring guides effective decision-making,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “Because we don’t know what the biosphere is going to look like a century from now … we have to iterate, we have to measure, and then we look to see if there’s a difference between our expectations and where we need to be.”

The report also stresses that the long timelines involved in restoring and maintaining natural habitats, such as forests and coral reefs, is one reason why countries need to act now to ensure that another longer-term UN goal is met: putting global biodiversity on a path to recovery by midcentury.

“I certainly think they make a strong case that we need transformative change if we want to live on a planet that we share with other species and not some kind of bio-desolate wasteland like see we showing up in our science-fiction television and movies right now,” said Alana Westwood, an assistant professor of resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax who was not involved in the report.

Dr. Westwood said the report captures a changing dialogue among conservation scientists that increasingly frames environmental problems, such as climate change and species loss, as interconnected and unsolvable unless tackled together as part of a broader approach to utilizing the planet more responsibly.

In this respect, she said, the report hews closer to Indigenous-informed values that emphasize taking from the environment only what is needed for individuals and communities, rather than generating large amounts of waste as a byproduct of maximizing profits.

Mike Gill, a Nova Scotia-based program director with NatureServe, an international organization that gathers biodiversity data, acted as a reviewer on the report. He said the document helps fill the gap between broadly and sometimes imprecisely worded international goals with the more specific policy choices that countries must make regarding their own share of the planet’s natural assets.

“The decisions that make or break biodiversity on a daily basis are governed at the national scale,” he said.

He added that another area where the report makes an important contribution is in its analysis of the effects of international trade on biodiversity and the need for better ways of measuring those effects.

“You can have a situation where a country like Canada feasibly meets all of its targets by 2030 … where we do all the right things within our borders, but still, through our trade and consumption patterns, drive massive biodiversity loss in tropical areas,” he said.

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