A decade-long global effort to save Earth’s disappearing species and declining ecosystems has mostly failed, with fragile habitats like coral reefs and tropical forests in more trouble than ever, researchers said in a report on the Tuesday.

In 2010, more than 150 countries agreed to goals to protect nature, but the new United Nations scorecard found that the world has largely failed to meet 20 different goals to safeguard species and ecosystems.

Six of those 20 targets were « partially met » and the rest were not.

If this were a school and it was about testing, the world would have failed, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which released the report.


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Inger Andersen, who leads the UN’s environmental program, called it a global failure.

“From COVID-19 to massive wildfires, floods, melting glaciers and unprecedented heat, our failure to meet the Aichi [biodiversity] goals, protecting our home, has very real consequences, ”Andersen said. « We can no longer afford to leave nature aside. »

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon linked the problems to « the lack of global partnership and political leadership. » He said multilateralism has come under attack, citing as an example the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

The UN team and the report’s authors said the study is not intended to stoke despair, but to spur governments to take stronger action over the next decade to protect the diversity of life.

“Some progress has been made, but insufficient progress. There is still a lot to do, ”said Mrema. « The key is to get the political will and commitment. »

Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, who was not involved in the new report, said it’s good that countries are meeting to examine their biodiversity goals, but that some of the goals are confusing. Reducing « everything on the planet to unique scores » obscures the fact that the picture may look different in different places, he said.

For years, conservation activists have used the polar bear as a symbol of species in trouble, especially those threatened by climate change, which the report links to biodiversity loss. But Mrema and lead author David Cooper said the world should think of a different poster animal: humans.

« Many things that civilizations depend on are certainly threatened, » he said.

The report was originally scheduled to be published at a UN conference where biodiversity targets would be set for the next decade, but the event in Kunming, China, was postponed until next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the World Wide Fund for Nature released new research detailing how monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016.

« With pandemic deaths and wildfires on the rise across the West Coast, the consequences of our misuse and abuse of the natural world have never been clearer, » said Julia Baum, a biologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, which was not part of the report.

As countries prepare to restart their economies after fighting the coronavirus, there is an opportunity to do better, or much worse, for the planet, Cooper said.

« Some countries are relaxing environmental regulations, but others are investing in a green recovery, » he said.

One of the challenges in meeting global biodiversity targets is the mismatch between countries with abundant natural assets, such as large tracts of intact tropical forests, and those with money to enforce protections.

« Biodiversity hotspots tend to be in the poorest countries, » and rich countries must be willing to provide financial or practical support to help other nations, Cooper said.

An aerial view of reclaimed soy fields from the adjacent rainforest in Brazil.

(Leo Correa / Associated Press)

Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who was also not part of the report, said the world is at a crossroads.

« We still have a chance to save most of the world’s endangered species and vulnerable ecosystems, » said Worm. « Now we are faced with a historic decision to seize this opportunity and rebuild what has been lost, or to let the world’s species slide further into oblivion. »

He said it is surprising that Earth’s biodiversity has taken millions of years to evolve, « however, we could destroy much of it in a matter of decades, or safeguard it for generations to come. »

« It is our choice, » he added.