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IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology

An initiative from the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, January 2020.

Introducing the new IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology

Version 2.0 of the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology is currently under revision and will become available soon. The new typology comprises six hierarchical levels to support applications across global to local scales. The three upper levels classify ecosystems based on their functional characteristics, irrespective of species composition. The three lower levels of classification distinguish functionally similar ecosystems from one another based on compositional resemblance and enable integration of established classifications already in use and incorporated into policy infrastructure at national levels. This is crucial, as important conservation action occurs at local levels, where most expertise resides.

The typology is based on an explicit theoretical framework with contributions from an extensive global network of ecosystem experts. It differs from the IUCN Habitats Classification Scheme, designed to characterize habitats of individual species rather than ecosystem processes. Version 1.0 includes a set of systematic profiles describing the key ecological traits, functional processes and global distribution of biomes and ecosystem functional groups throughout the biosphere. The typology applies the same classificatory framework and underlying model to ecosystems across marine, freshwater, terrestrial and subterranean environments.

Policy context

The conservation and management of ecosystems has never been more central to the future of biodiversity and human well-being on Earth. The CBD Aichi targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals mandate global action that depends directly or indirectly on ecosystem assessment. The CBD post-2020 agenda also focusses heavily on ecosystem conservation. 



Information infrastructure to support these global policy initiatives is developing rapidly, including the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EEA), and listing criteria for both the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems (RLE) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA), among several other tools. All initiatives, their overarching policy framework, and several other activities require a standardized, globally consistent, spatially explicit typology and terminology for managing the world’s ecosystems and their services.

Why do we need another ecological classification?

Existing global-scale ecological classifications were designed to meet different needs, not our current demand for ecosystem assessment. Several of these existing classifications have characteristics that are relevant to ecosystem assessment and management. The combination of intrinsic and utilitarian motives to conserve and manage ecosystems demands a typology that represents both ecological processes and the identity of their characteristic biota. Serving the policy needs requires scalable, systematic and mappable classification that defines ecosystem types consistently across the world. When reviewed, none of the 20 existing global-scale ecological classifications met these requirements. While many provided a useful representation of biogeographic patterns, most failed to incorporate ecological processes and functions and lacked a truly global scope encompassing all (terrestrial, freshwater and marine) components of the biosphere within a single framework. Representation of ecological processes is essential if a typology is to support generalizations about ecosystem responses to environmental change and management action. It is therefore critical to natural capital accounting, adaptive ecosystem management and sustainable management of ecosystem services, all of which depend on ecosystem functions.

Future development 

The theoretical framework underpinning the typology is critical to ensuring classification robustness with a changing knowledge base plus the flexibility to accommodate new information.  Future development will focus on mapping global distributions of ecosystem functional groups and developing linkages with established national classifications. Global-scale spatial modeling and remote sensing will enable the distribution of functional groups of ecosystems to be mapped at high spatial resolution.

Wide exposure will promote testing and refinements, which will be incorporated into subsequent versions and extension to local levels.


Further information:

Contact IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Thematic Group:

[email protected]

IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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