In 2002, 191 nations pledged to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss around the world by 2010. Despite the promises, enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity, the plight of threatened species has gotten worse, not better, researchers report  online today in Science. “All the evidence indicates that governments have failed to deliver on their commitments, and we have failed to meet the 2010 target,” says Matthew Walpole, a co-author of the report from the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
This somber but not unexpected news comes on the eve of a May meeting of scientists charged with coming up with the convention’s goals for the next decade. Those goals will be submitted for approval at a summit of nations in Japan in October. Some experts hope the bad marks will prompt greater commitment to the protection of biodiversity in the next decade. “We have not made a lot of progress, and we need to get our act together,” says Thomas Lovejoy, a biodiversity specialist at the Heinz Center, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.
The new report is a product of the 2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, a consortium of 40 organizations that contributed data and analyses for 31 indicators of biodiversity. The list includes a variety of measures of biodiversity; of the pressures leading to the loss of species, genetic diversity, populations, and ecosystems; of the responses by governments and other organizations; and of the benefits or services provided by biodiversity.
One indicator, the Living Planet Index, for example, compiles thousands of annual population surveys of vertebrates from around the world. It showed a decline of 30% in vertebrate populations since 1970. Other surveys show that the extent of mangroves and sea grasses has shrunk by 20%. Living coral cover is 40% of what it once was. The Red List Index, which keeps tabs on threatened organisms, showed that these species face an increased risk of extinction. Meanwhile, threats, such as deforestation, invasive species, and pollution have increased.
There has been some progress. In the 1970s, Brazil’s Amazon had just one national park and one national forest; now, 57% of the land is under some protection, says Lovejoy. The Alliance for Zero Extinction, a consortium of more than 60 organizations that identified 560 places where species are at risk of imminent extinction, found that 40% of the sites are now being preserved to some degree. “This shows that conservation action can and does work,” particularly at the local level, says Thomas Brooks of NatureServe, a consortium based in Arlington, Virginia, that collects biodiversity data. “We just need much more of it, and over much longer periods.”
The study has highlighted the need for better goal-setting. “Slowing the rate of biodiversity loss wasn’t a good target,” says Benjamin Skolnik, a conservation biologist at the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C. “It wasn’t rigorous enough.” Delegates to the May meeting are coming up with 20 targets for 2020 and are trying to make them much more concrete and measurable. Some tentative goals include eliminating overfishing, preventing extinctions, and setting aside 15% of the land and sea as protected areas.
Despite the bad news, Walpole’s colleague and lead author Stuart Butchart of Birdlife International in Cambridge is optimistic. “We can look after nature if we apply real political will and adequate resources,” he says. “2010 must be the year that governments start to take the issue seriously.”