The natural world in 2020 was supposed to look promising: richer, better protected and with people putting less pressure on the ecosystems that sustain us.

The reality is not even close.

Humanity has failed to fully achieve any of the 20 global biodiversity targets set by the UN ten years ago and has “partly achieved” just six of them, according to a landmark assessment of biodiversity published Tuesday. For one target, on protecting coral reefs, the world is moving in the opposite direction.

Data from individual governments show that a third of national biodiversity targets, which are set by the countries themselves, are on track to be met or exceeded. But these are less ambitious than the UN targets and less than a quarter match up well with the global goals to protect nature.

The vision for biodiversity set out in 2010 is only achievable if the world responds to “compelling evidence” that “transformative change” is required, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which prepared the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) report.

People scooping oil out of the water on the coast of Mauritius (L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

An oil spill in Mauritius in July is threatening coral reefs and other areas of rich biodiversity

A Kayapo person protesting a highway that is enabling deforestation (AFP/C. de Souza)

Indigenous people in Brazil blocked a highway in August that has enabled deforestation of the Amazon rainforest

Global decline in biodiversity

The charge sheet is long. Pollution from plastics and pesticides have not been brought down to safe levels. Governments still subsidize businesses that damage ecosystems. Coral reefs, which are dying across the world, are struck by the triple-threat of human action: climate change, pollution and overfishing. Some of those drivers are getting worse.

And even where there is progress, it is rarely enough. Deforestation should have halted by now, but it has only been cut by a third, with Asia and Europe gaining forests while Africa and South America lose them at a faster rate.

Conservation efforts have saved species like the Puerto Rican amazon parrot and the Mongolian Przewalski’s horse. But they have failed to keep others like the Western Black Rhino or the Christmas Island pipistrelle from being wiped out forever.

While the big trends in biodiversity loss were already known, the report adds “systematic analysis” on how well the world has achieved the 2010 targets, said Josef Settele, an ecologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany, who contributed research to the report but was not involved in writing it. 

Fish jump out of the water in Qiandao Lake, China (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Chen)

Fish populations are recovering in waters managed by sustainable fishing policies

Fishers in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (Getty Images/AFP/C. Mahyuddin)

More than 3 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their daily protein intake

Conservation progress

“There is also some brightness,” Settele added. “The things we are doing are not completely in vain.”

The report, which brings together evidence of the “growing biodiversity crisis and the urgent need for action,” highlights areas of progress. For instance, almost 100 countries have incorporated biodiversity values into national accounting systems. Over the last 20 years, the world has increased the share of protected areas from 10% to 15% on land and from 3% to 7% in water.

There are now more fish in waters managed by good fishing policies. Governments are increasingly eradicating invasive species from islands. And since 1993, conservation actions have prevented the extinction of between 28 and 48 bird and mammal species, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Conservation Letters — though many remain highly threatened and may still become extinct.

“The progress toward conserving life on earth has been much greater than it would have been [without action],” said Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who was a co-author of the extinction study but was not involved in the GBO. “The absolutely key question is how to scale up from where things currently are, in terms of responses, to meet targets comprehensively.”

A beekeeper holding bees in Hong Kong (AFP via Getty Images)

Bee populations are falling because of intensive farming, pesticides, pollution and climate change

Ima Market in Maniput, India (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/D. Talukdar)

Damage to ecosystems puts food security at risk

Protecting wildlife, not just individual species

The way to get that scale, according to the GBO report, is by “mainstreaming” the opportunities and responsibilities from protecting nature. That means every level of society — from individuals and local communities to businesses and national governments — would need to factor biodiversity into their economic decisions.

Like climate change, ecological collapse is happening at breakneck speed. A 2019 report by IPBES, the UN panel of biodiversity experts, found that humans are altering the natural world at an “unprecedented pace” and threatening 1 million animal and plant species with extinction.

Infographic bending the curve on biodiversity loss

Scientists say both issues require systemic changes, but individual actions can help. Agriculture is one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in the journal Nature on Thursday found that more than two-thirds of future biodiversity losses could be avoided by conserving and restoring land, reducing food waste and switching to more plant-based diets.

They are among many actions laid out in the GBO report to reduce and eventually restore lost biodiversity.

If we do not act faster, said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, “biodiversity will continue to buckle” under the weight of overexploitation, climate change, pollution, invasive alien species and changes to land and sea. “This will further damage human health, economies and societies — with particularly detrimental effects on indigenous peoples and local communities.”