Clear goals but murky path to ecosystem sustainability: Key knowledge gaps identified

October 28, 2019

To overcome current biodiversity loss, new study identifies need for better knowledge on effective governance, institutions, and connections between social and ecological systems.

International sustainability policies set out clear goals for protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, but how to actually achieve these goals remains elusive in practice, as biodiversity loss continues at an alarming rate. A new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability by an international team of 32 scientists identifies key knowledge gaps that need to be answered to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, and calls for more relevant, solutions-focused research that can address the social-ecological crisis.

The new study identifies knowledge gaps from seven recent assessments by the leading scientific body IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The IPBES assessments synthesize current knowledge about the relationship between people and nature, including humans' role in managing ecosystems to provide benefits to people. IPBES reports are a critical tool both to inform evidence-based policymaking and to set scientific research agendas.

The authors compared the knowledge gaps identified in the seven IPBES reports to key international sustainability goals set out by the United Nations for both the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, agreed in 2010 under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed in 2015.

"We found that global sustainability goals cannot be achieved without improved knowledge on feedbacks between social and ecological systems, and on effective governance systems and institutions that can equitably deliver ecosystem services and protect vulnerable people," says Matias Mastrangelo, researcher at the National University of Mar del Plata in Argentina, who led the study.

"We need to identify management and policy strategies for ecosystems and biodiversity that are effective, just, inclusive, and promote good quality of life."

The analysis found that progress has been made towards closing some previous knowledge gaps identified in the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, including better understanding of long-term trends in ecological change. Still, after decades of research, some knowledge gaps remain, and new ones have emerged.

"We've made great strides forward in global assessments. But the most urgent research gap hasn't changed since 2005: we need effective strategies to meet our sustainability goals," says coauthor Elena Bennett, Associate Professor at the McGill School of Environment in Canada.

"Additionally, in this latest assessment, the role of indigenous and local knowledge to sustain nature's benefits to people has emerged as a key knowledge gap. Now we need to get those with deep expertise in social change and governance to the table, including local actors and decision makers."

Along these lines, the IPBES assessments reflect a growing consensus for the need for new ways to value both human well-being and biodiversity protection. Coauthor Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden, notes the new assessments mark an emerging paradigm shift:

"The emphasis we found on the importance of human values and institutions puts people at the heart of nature protection. To support decisions that ensure both people and nature can thrive, we need new ways to value human and natural well-being, beyond defining a good life based just on gross domestic product."

Finally, the authors argue that the knowledge gaps they identified should be an important input for the new global biodiversity targets set to be adopted in 2020 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Biodiversity.

"Researchers, research funders, and policymakers need to urgently focus on improving knowledge about the gaps identified, particularly in regions where this knowledge is currently lacking," concludes study author Natalia Perez Harguindeguy, Professor at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina and researcher at the National Research Council of Argentina.

"The future of humanity depends on how we respond to the current social-ecological crisis."

Lund University

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