State of the Planet

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IUCN Red List for Ecosystems Steps Up Biodiversity Conservation

The collapse of the Aral Sea ecosystem is akin to species extinction under the new IUCN Red List for ecosystems. Photo Credit: Staecker.
The collapse of the Aral Sea ecosystem is akin to species extinction under the new IUCN Red List for ecosystems. Photo: Staecker.

By Alex Varga, Deputy Director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability

This week in PLoS One, a group of researchers coordinated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), published a new framework for assessing threats to ecosystems.   This study offers the theoretical foundation for the Red List criteria for ecosystems, which like its predecessor, the Species Red List, will aim to inform government and society about the current status of biodiversity and provide the data necessary to develop strategies and priorities for conservation.

Despite recent global commitments to the conservation of biodiversity such as the Convention of Biological Diversity’s 2010 Targets and the formation of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), we have made little progress in slowing the rate of biodiversity loss across the globe.  While the Species Red List has been successful in avoiding extinction of key species, little has been done to link species diversity with ecological functioning, a key component of ecosystem health and the basis for the delivery of ecosystem services.  The shift from species to ecosystems reflects the need for biodiversity assessments that address a higher level of biological organization and that capture the complex relationships between species, their environment, and ecological processes.

To develop the Red List framework for ecosystems, researchers had to balance devising criteria that was both scientifically robust, but also practical and able to be used across a wide range of ecosystem types and threats.  Through an extensive international consultation process, the project team identified five criteria for ecosystem decline and degradation which encompass both threats to the spatial distribution of ecosystems as well as their processes and functions.

Professor David Keith, of the University of New South Wales and the NSW Office of Environment, who leads the project said “changes in the distribution of an ecosystem, its physical environment and its component species can each tell us something different about the severity of risks, and these symptoms can now be assessed in standard ways across different types of ecosystems”

The study tested the new criteria in 20 distinct ecosystems spanning multiple land and seascapes, continents, and types of threat to illustrate the implementation of the Red List ecosystems framework.   Dr. Jon Paul Rodriguez, at the Centro de Ecología, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, CERC adjunct research scientist, and joint leader of the project for IUCN, is continuing to work on refining the framework and criteria for the new Red List, which they are aiming to complete by 2025.  The hope is that it will become a valuable tool for strengthening global capacity to monitor biodiversity consistently across nations, track progress, and promote a new understanding of  the steps necessary for the conservation of species and ecosystems everywhere.

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