Technology can help conserve biodiversity
PROTATION OF the biological, ecological and genetic diversity that sustains life on Earth is the mission of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. But progress has been slow, to put it mildly. A list of 20 conservation targets, known as the Aichi Targets, was established in 2010, with a deadline of 2020. In this case, none of the targets were fully met (see graph ).
In 2020, IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an organization created to bridge the gap between biodiversity science and policy) has released a global assessment of the state of biodiversity. Written by 145 experts from 50 countries who reviewed 15,000 research and government sources, it offered a sobering message. “The health of the ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating faster than ever,” said Sir Robert Watson, President of IPBES. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, our food security, our health and our quality of life around the world. “
According to the Living Planet Report 2020, produced by WWF and the Zoological Society of London, two conservation and research groups, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish declined by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016. Two years earlier, she had found that the decline was 60% for the years 1970 to 2014, suggesting that the losses are accelerating. Human activity is believed to cause species to disappear about 100 times faster than the natural background rate.
As this Technology Quarterly showed, an explosion of technology, nanopore DNA sequencing to global computer models expands human understanding of ecosystems. Yet most biodiversity indicators still point in an alarming direction. How can technological advances be coupled with the policy changes needed to reverse the decline? It will take three things.
The first step is to put the different surveillance systems together in order to provide a clear picture of what is going on and what needs to be done. The siled nature of ecological science, in which teams focus on a particular animal, plant or ecological niche, has created a patchwork of initiatives and data rather than a holistic, holistic approach. At the moment, it is not even possible to draw an accurate picture of the number, location and type of the various sensors in the world, let alone the species they monitor. Wildlife Insights, a global online repository for camera traps, has logged thousands of cameras, but is constantly discovering more. One country recently informed him that there were 1,000 other sensors that had not yet been registered, for example. A survey due to be released later this year by WildLabs, a network of conservation technology users, found that funding, coordination and capacity building are essential to the development and adoption of conservation technologies.
Shared practices, databases and platforms, such as Wildlife Insights, are starting to close the gap. Additionally, says Tanya Berger-Wolf, computer scientist and ecologist at Ohio State University, ecosystem-wide observational networks are needed to measure everything from a landscape’s structure to its climatic conditions. to the location and identity of animal species, and how they interact with each other and with human infrastructure.
The second step is to create more powerful and detailed ecosystem models, so that they can be used to develop and analyze policy changes, for example on land use, fishing rights, agricultural practices and regulation of pollutants. Computer simulations have been instrumental in deepening understanding of climate change, projecting future impacts, public and policy awareness, and policy design. Global ecosystem models are decades behind in comparison. Better models would allow decision makers to set more precise and effective goals. The Aichi 2010 list was desperately detailed in its breakdown of what needed to be done, while remaining vague and qualitative on how the targets should be achieved. Governments are currently negotiating a new list, which is expected to be approved at an intergovernmental summit scheduled for October 2021, setting targets for 2030 and 2050. Simple, quantifiable targets and clear methods to measure success, as there are for climate change, are urgently needed.
Third, once the surveillance systems, models, and policies are in place, technology can help assess and enforce those policies, and advocate for their adjustment or expansion, where appropriate. If marine protected areas are large, for example, ecosystem monitoring can both measure the impact on fish stocks and keep an eye out for unauthorized fishing vessels.
All of this will require funding for monitoring and enforcement. And right now, most conservation technologies are developed in rich countries, while most of the biodiversity is concentrated far away in poorer countries. Even when the American or European kit arrives in the hands of researchers, forest rangers or land managers, maintenance is a problem. More training and greater use of open source platforms that put knowledge in the hands of people in the field can help. But at the end of the day, it will take broader mechanisms for richer countries to help poorer ones.
Many of the policies needed will overlap with those needed to tackle climate change. But not all. Understanding how ecosystems change and measuring the impact and effectiveness of interventions will be essential for biodiversity conservation. Technology alone cannot solve the problem. But it’s hard to imagine how the problem can be solved without it. ■
Complete content of this Technology Quarterly
The other environmental emergency: the loss of biodiversity represents a risk for humanity as great as climate change
Sensors and Sensitivity: All kinds of new technologies are being used to monitor the natural world
Cracking the Code: Genetic Material Sequencing is a Powerful Conservation Tool
Participatory science: how volunteer observers can help protect biodiversity
Simulate everything: In relation to climate, ecosystem modeling is in its infancy
Back from the dead: the resurrection of extinct species may soon be possible
* Bridging the gap: technology can help conserve biodiversity