Slow progress towards global marine protected area targets: reflections for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework

By Holly Niner

Photo: Lisa Rishworth / DSCE

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a final report on progress achieved against Aichi Target 11 on protected areas. This blog post reflects on the key findings of the report, and the contributions of relevant research under the One Ocean Hub to the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, the UN Decade of Ocean Science and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Key findings from the WCMC-IUCN report

Based on defined progress indicators, the WCMC-UNEP report reflects on progress towards Aichi Target 11, which was agreed in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and reads:

“By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”

With a view to informing the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be agreed at the UN Biodiversity Conference in October 2021, the report indicates that:

  •  7.74% of coastal and marine areas are being protected with the 10% threshold likely exceeded if ‘other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) that are known to be poorly reported are included;
  • 33.9% of marine Key Biodiversity Areas, the most critical sites for nature on our planet, do not have any coverage; and,
  • The global network of protected areas and OECMs fall short of targets for ecosystem representation, with particularly low coverage in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) and of marine Key Biodiversity Areas (sites considered most critical for nature on our planet).

Most significantly, given ongoing trends of biodiversity decline, the report confirms that the effectiveness of these expanding protected areas remains largely unknown. Appraisals of governance effectiveness has been undertaken in only 18.29% of all protected areas (terrestrial and marine). Similarly, understanding of how and whether the designation and management of these sites meets aims of “equitable” management remains unknown. Whilst effective and equitable governance of protected areas will contribute to reversing trends of biodiversity loss, the report acknowledges how continuing pursuit of these spatial targets for protected areas “will not halt biodiversity loss unless there is sustainable management across the surrounding land and seascape”. This underlines the need to address wider drivers for biodiversity loss such as climate change, patterns of human use and exclusive governance regimes of global natural capital that do not incorporate the true value of nature and the full range of ways in which these values are experienced by people.

While the report underscores how protected area expansion to date has fallen short of the achievement of defined targets and critically, of the CBD target of equitable governance, including the historical exclusion of actor groups, new international agreed targets to increase marine spatial protection have been made, to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 2050 vision for biodiversity: “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people”.

The report thus emphasizes the need reconcile these shortcomings, both of which will require transformation of governance beyond the boundaries of protected areas, to meet the CBD’s 2050 vision – as a key message for the ongoing negotiations of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be agreed at the UN Biodiversity Conference in October 2021.

Relevant Hub research

Similar to Aichi Target 11, many of targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledging the interconnections between the environment, people and the economy seeks to address the wider system of sustainability, were set with a deadline of 2020 and present a mixed picture in terms of performance. Also reflecting the challenges of bench-marking progress against the full aims of Aichi Target 11, the limited availability of data for many SDG indicators was found to prevent the robust assessment of the progress of many targets. In an assessment of the ‘environmental indicators’ of the SDGs published in May 2021, UNEP reported that 33% display a neutral or negative trend of success.

Reflecting the findings of analysis undertaken as part of the One Ocean Hub into the connections of the SDGs and the Blue Economy (Niner et al., in review), the report highlights how interpretation of progress towards the SDGs requires scalar (national and local) interrogation to understand the relationships driving overarching trends. A key finding of the UNEP’s report is the identification of data gaps that prevent the evaluation of environmental dimension of the SDGs. This is a known area of weakness for the SDGs where indicators have been shown to poorly account for the connections between the biosphere and people. Again reflecting an area of ongoing research for the One Ocean Hub, the report sets out the critical need for tools and methodologies for understanding the interactions between the environment, social and economic aspects of sustainable development.

Making the many connections between society and marine environments visible and accessible for inclusion in governance is an area of research being addressed through various avenues in the One Ocean Hub. This includes ongoing research by the University of Plymouth to display the many ways that society and economies benefit from ecosystem services arising from deep-sea environments, as well as research at Strathclyde University, the University of Cape Coast and Nelson Mandela University on the inter-dependence of human rights and a healthy ocean. In addition, questions of equity, inclusion and human rights in the creation and management of marine protected areas are studied from an inter- and trans-disciplinary perspective in South Africa by colleagues at Rhodes University, Cape Town University, Nelson Mandela University and Durban University of Technology.

Moving forward

These recent UN reports on global progress towards sustainability targets, notably on marine protected areas, and an assessment of the tools by which progress can be measured, highlight the importance of developing and sharing knowledge and tools through a transdisciplinary approach (see here and here) directly targeted towards the challenges identified as preventing progress towards the equitable protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services essential for societal wellbeing under the CBD and the SDGs. This is particularly timely given the global stage for marine governance in 2021 where the world is reflecting on the past 10 years of progress under the Aichi targets and against the SDGs, global commitments to climate mitigation and adaptation framed by the inaugural year of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

The One Ocean Hub is sharing relevant research, and early lessons in prototyping transformative research approaches for sustainable development, in the context of fast-approaching UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (31 October – 12 November 2021), the UN Decade for Ocean Science, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.