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To sustain and restore biodiversity and ecosystem services, we need investment in ecosystem Red List assessments and the data that underpins them

16 / Feb / 2024Publications

To sustain and restore biodiversity and ecosystem services, we need investment in ecosystem Red List assessments and the data that underpins them

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is the world’s primary multi-lateral treaty on nature. Each decade, parties to the Convention, including Australia, agree on a new set of goals and targets, similar to the UNFCCC. While these are not binding, they set the agenda for global aspirations and action to reverse biodiversity loss. The last of these, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was agreed in December 2022, after protracted and difficult negotiations delayed by the Covid pandemic. The Framework comprises four goals, 23 targets for actions to meet the goals, and headline indicators to track progress and guide action.  

Goal A seeks to enhance ecosystem integrity, connectivity, and resilience, and increase ecosystem area, in addition to reducing species extinction risk and maintaining genetic diversity.  This emphasis on ecosystems recognises their essential role in halting biodiversity decline and species extinctions, and in maintaining ecosystem services that underpin human well-being and the economy.

One of the Framework’s headline indicators is the Red List of Ecosystems, the global standard for ecosystem risk assessment in 2014. The Red List of Ecosystems provides a systematic framework for collating, analysing and synthesising data on ecosystems, including their distribution, integrity and risk of collapse. It has seen rapid uptake globally: more than 4000 ecosystems have been assessed in over 110 countries and 24 territories, with assessments of all terrestrial ecosystem types available in 63 countries.

The Red List of Ecosystems has many roles in the implementation the Global Biodiversity Framework, as well as monitoring its progress. We identified four key roles, and how these can help countries achieve the goals and targets, with important roles in at least 16 of the 23 targets.

1)    The Red List of Ecosystems provides consistency across the Global Biodiversity Framework’s goal and targets, and across countries as they implement them. It provides theory and definitions for complex but important terms and concepts, like ecosystem type, and ecosystem integrity, which are used across goals and targets. Because it is an international standard (like accounting standards, and other IUCN knowledge products like the Red List of Threatened Species and Key biodiversity Areas), countries will compile ecosystem information in a consistent way that makes Red List assessments, their underlying data and the headline indicator comparable between countries.

2)    Red List of Ecosystems assessments compile practical data and knowledge about ecosystems in a country or region. In particular, ecosystem maps, descriptions and measures of integrity are foundational data for restoration, land/sea-use planning and protection (Targets 1, 2 and 3).  This information also contributes to actions reducing threats to biodiversity (targets 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8) and sustainable use of ecosystems (targets 5 and 9).

3)    A key outcomes of a Red List assessment (for species and ecosystems) is a risk category – the Red List of ecosystem has the same familiar risk categories as the Red List of threatened species (Endangered, Vulnerable and so forth). This information is critical to  priority setting on when, where, how and how much investment and action is needed. Risk categories also support legislation (e.g. protections for threatened ecosystems in many countries), private sector reporting and decisions, and galvanise action through communication with the general public. Risk categories also provide the input to the headline indicators – Red List Indices for ecosystems (A1) and species (A2).

4)    Finally, the Red List of Ecosystems fosters collaboration, cooperation and knowledge sharing, across countries, sectors, government departments and institutions. It can also facilitate inclusion of different groups and knowledge types, including Indigenous peoples and local communities, in ecosystem descriptions, maps and assessments.

The Red List of Ecosystems is therefore well-placed to aid Parties as they assess, plan and act to achieve the targets and goals. The biggest challenge lies in increasing coverage of assessments, and especially development of national assessments that countries can use across the Framework and across sectors. This will require investment in people, data collection and compilation, and new technologies and methods. Lessons from across Africa, northern Europe and Latin America can help countries target their investment and build capacity. This will need commitment and investment from countries and the international community, and partnerships between practitioners, policy-makers, and scientists.

Map Rle

Map showing current availability of Red List of Ecosystems assessments by country. Assessments of all terrestrial ecosystems are available for 63 countries (shown in red). Subsets of terrestrial ecosystems (e.g., all forest ecosystems) have been assessed in 30 countries, shown in pink. Assessments of all marine ecosystems are available in 32 countries (including marine-transitional ecosystems such as mangrove forests), shown in dark blue, while subsets (e.g., all coral reefs in the Western Indian Ocean) have been assessed in 49 countries (pale blue). Assessments of all freshwater ecosystems (including freshwater transitional ecosystem such as wetlands) are available in 42 countries, with subsets in 47 (not shown but listed in the paper). Black dots show individual ecosystems that have been assessed. Further national assessments are underway (e.g., in Australia, Namibia).


Figure from Nicholson et al (2024) Nature Ecology and Evolution.



Nicholson, E., A. Andrade, T. M. Brooks, A. Driver, J. R. Ferrer Paris, H. Grantham, M. S. Gudka, D. A. Keith, T. Kontula, A. Lindgaard, M. C. Londono-Murcia, N. J. Murray, A. Raunio, J. A. Rowland, M. Sievers, A. L. Skowno, S. L. Stevenson, M. Valderrabano, C. M. Vernon, I. Zager and D. Obura (2024) Roles of the Red List of Ecosystems in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Nature Ecology & Evolution


Written by Emily Nicholson.




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