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Red List of Ecosystems

Everyone knows that coral reefs are in danger, and that rainforests are disappearing – or do we? What do we actually know in scientific terms? How much of these ecosystems remain, and how likely are they to disappear? The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a tool to provide answers to these questions: the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems.

What is the Red List of Ecosystems?

The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Categories and Criteria is a global standard for how we assess the conservation status of ecosystems, applicable at local, national, regional and global levels. The Red List of Ecosystems evaluates whether ecosystems have reached the final stage of degradation (a state of Collapse), whether they are threatened at Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable levels, or if they are not currently facing significant risk of collapse (Least Concern). It is based on a set of rules, or criteria, for performing evidence-based, scientific assessments of the risk of ecosystem collapse, as measured by reductions in geographical distribution or degradation of the key processes and components of ecosystems.

Since the state of conservation of ecosystems is constantly changing, the reality is that a red list represents the equivalent to a photograph of an ecosystem's risk of collapsing at the time of its assessment. The strength of the Red Lists of Ecosystems comes from its regular and periodical application, with the goal of generating a changing image, like a film, of the evolution of the ecosystems threats and their recovery in response to conservation measures.

How can the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems be important for you?

The Red List of Ecosystems will be of great value to a number of different sectors, including:

  • Conservation: to help prioritize investments in ecosystem management and restoration, reform resource use practices, and reward good and improved ecosystem management.
  • Natural resource management: to illustrate ecosystem risks under different land use/development scenarios, and offer insights into ecosystems that provide services such as clean water, soil productivity and the availability of natural products.
  • Macro-economic planning: to highlight both the economic costs of reduced ecosystem services and potential economic benefits of improved ecosystem management.
  • Improvement of governance and livelihoods: to inform development of governance systems that improve ecosystem management, livelihood security and social outcomes.
  • Global environmental reporting: to inform governments and the global community on progress towards achieving international environmental targets.
  • Private sector: to assess potential environmental and social benefits and costs of alternative designs of future development projects, as well as monitor and report on environmental impacts.
  • Public sector: to inform the public about the current state of ecosystems and their future prognosis.

Red List of Ecosystems objectives and goals

The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems supports three major products:

  1. A global assessment of the ecosystems of the world by 2025. Partial results, focusing on specific regions, have been on continuous development since 2015.
  2. Technical support will be provided for stakeholders to carry out finer scale assessments at national and regional levels. These may be led by government agencies, NGOs, academic institutions, IUCN national and regional offices and their networks of collaborators.
  3. The Red List criteria may be applied to assess individual ecosystems of particular interest to stakeholders. 

The central goal of the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Categories and Criteria is to support conservation in resource use and management decisions by identifying ecosystems most at risk of biodiversity loss. To meet this goal, a balance of four qualities was sought in the design of the RLE protocol: generality, precision, realism, and simplicity (Keith et al. 2013).

The quality of global Red List of Ecosystems assessments will be assured by a cross-disciplinary committee of eminent ecosystem scientists. Ecosystem risk assessments led by IUCN will be freely available on this web portal in the three official IUCN languages (English, French, and Spanish) and in other languages depending on the case.


From species to ecosystems

Ecosystem red lists have the potential to complement the policy successes of species red lists in several ways.

  1. Ecosystems may more effectively represent biological diversity as a whole than individual species.
  2. The ecosystemic scale includes fundamental abiotic components that are only indirectly included in species assessments.
  3. Decline in ecosystem status may be more apparent than extinctions of individual species.
  4. Ecosystem-level assessments may be less time consuming than species-by-species assessments.
  5. Red lists of ecosystems may suggest areas in which extirpations are likely to result from extinction debt in response to loss and fragmentation of species’ habitats, because decline in the extent and status of an ecosystem may precede the loss of its species.


The Red List of Ecosystems and global challenges 

In this world of rapid climate change and increasing risks of disasters, reliable assessments of ecosystem status serve to raise awareness about threats to ecosystems and the resulting impacts on human well-being, as well as to demonstrate how improved ecosystem management can reduce risks, enhance resilience, and promote adaptation. The Red List of Ecosystems will inform better management of the finite resources of our planet. Sound environmental management is imperative to maintain functional ecosystems, their biological diversity and the ecosystem services upon which our economies and social well-being ultimately depend.


Red List of Ecosystems Categories and Criteria 

Based on the hypothesis that ecosystem risk is a function of the species that compose them, their interactions, and the ecological processes they depend on, the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems protocol includes five criteria for assessing the risk of ecosystem collapse: A) Reduction in geographic distribution, B) Restricted geographic distribution, C) Environmental degradation, D) Disruption of biotic processes or interactions and E) Quantitative analysis that estimates the probability of ecosystem collapse. that compose them

There are eight possible categories of risk for each ecosystem. Three of them are assigned based on quantitative thresholds: Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), and Vulnerable (VU) – together, these categories are described as under threat. These categories are nested, so that an ecosystem type meeting a criterion for Critically Endangered will also meet the criteria for Endangered and Vulnerable. There are four additional qualitative categories that accommodate: 1) ecosystems that fail to meet the quantitative criteria for the threatened ecosystem categories (NT, Near Threatened); 2) ecosystems that unambiguously meet none of the quantitative criteria (LC, Least Concern); 3) ecosystems for which too few data exist to apply any criterion (DD, Data Deficient); and 4) ecosystems that have not yet been assessed (NE, Not Evaluated). An additional category (CO, Collapse) is assigned to ecosystems that have collapsed throughout their distribution, the analogue of the extinct (EX) category, used for species by IUCN (2016).

IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Risk Assessment Criteria

IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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