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Action for nature must be informed by science and knowledge or we risk wasting precious time and money

By Jonny Hughes and Neil Burgess, UNEP-WCMC, 21st July 2021

This is the last-chance decade for tackling the global nature and climate crises. Urgent action is needed, but more than ever this must be informed by robust science-based evidence to complement local knowledge. The role of applied research addressing these global challenges has never been more important to ensure that actions are effective, resources are used efficiently, and outcomes for nature and people are understood and sustained.

In the United Kingdom there has recently been a reduction to the research funds available for addressing such global challenges under the Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme, due to the ‘severe financial pressures as a result of COVID-19 and its impact on the economy’. For example, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) funded TRADE Hub, led by UNEP-WCMC (UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre), had its budget cut by 35% in the period April 2021-March 2022, with uncertain funding in future years.

It is estimated that international trade in agricultural commodities and wildlife underlies 30% of threats to species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, and drives 29% to 39% of deforestation-related greenhouse gas emissions. When the cuts were announced, the TRADE Hub was midway through investigating the complex relationships between trade and the degradation of nature as well as developing practical policy solutions for truly sustainable trade across multiple agricultural commodities (soy bean, oil palm, coffee, cocoa, bamboo and rattan, sugar, rubber), and wildlife (the international wildlife trade and trade in wild meat). The scope of the work ranges from farmers, hunters and collectors, through supply chains, to companies and trade rules, and the application of tools and metrics for measuring and reducing impacts of these trades on nature and people.

The fear is that similar cuts by institutional funders may happen across the world as governments reign in other spending to prioritise responses to the pandemic. This would be a false economy at a time when investment is urgently needed to protect and restore nature and, in doing so, realise a range of co-benefits from securing biosphere carbon stocks, creating opportunities for sustainable livelihoods and helping make landscapes and seascapes more resilient to climate change; as well as reducing the potential for emergence of future pandemics.

Informed choices

One piece of research partly funded by the TRADE Hub looked at what actions are optimal for ‘bending the curve’ of terrestrial biodiversity loss. The study was conducted by 56 scientists from 46 institutions and revealed that six integrated actions have the possibility to not only halt, but actually reverse, terrestrial biodiversity loss caused by land use change.

The study, published in Nature, used advanced and detailed futures modelling to identify the six realistically achievable actions which, if implemented together, would result in the recovery of nature on land:

  • Increasing crop yields in a sustainable manner
  • Increasing trade in sustainably produced agricultural goods while reducing trade barriers
  • Reducing by 50% the waste of agricultural goods from field to fork
  • Cutting the share of animal calories in human diets by 50% except in regions where the share of animal products in diets is already low (the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and other Pacific Islands)
  • Increasing protected areas to 40% terrestrial coverage, covering important sites for biodiversity, and improving their management
  • Increasing ecosystem restoration to reach approximately 8% of terrestrial areas by 2050, and implementing landscape-level conservation planning that balances production and conservation objectives on all managed land.

The joined-up implementation of these six actions could avoid more than two thirds of future biodiversity losses and reverse the biodiversity trends from habitat conversion by 2050. We now know important details of the opportunities that a combination of these actions would provide to meet ambitious goals and targets for nature protection and restoration under the future Global Biodiversity Framework due to be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity later this year. Without this kind of research, strategically prioritising which conservation actions to undertake and to fund is partly guesswork.

Optimising impact

We believe that there are several important ways in which philanthropic funders can optimise the impact of conservation efforts on the ground and at policy level:

  • Use the latest science, supplemented by local knowledge where appropriate, to guide funding priorities and allocations. One such example is the soon to be published analyses by the NatureMap consortium.
  • Consider supporting applied conservation research directly to build the evidence base for what works and what doesn’t, and then ensure the findings are shared through platforms like
  • Consider supporting datasets that monitor our shared global resources that can optimize effective on-the-ground conservation action. An example is the species threat abatement and restoration (STAR) metric and its underlying databases as included within the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool and the various other datasets also contained within that tool and  displayed for non-commercial use on the soon to be re-launched UN Biodiversity Lab.
  • Consider supporting work that seeks to create systemic socio-economic change with the potential to disrupt existing, inherently unsustainable, models and norms. An example being building a scorecard for biodiversity health: the Multidimensional Biodiversity Index.
  • Regularly review and update areas of focus through consultation with both grant recipients and peers to help ensure the conservation community is informed by the latest science and maximise its potential to enact positive environmental change.

Despite funding pressures, we remain optimistic for the future. Conservation science has never been such an exciting or important field to be working in and we begin the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and UN Decade for Action on the Sustainable Development Goals well equipped with knowledge to tackle the global nature crisis. However, there is much still to learn and apply, and we must continue to look to the evidence to help people across sectors and society to make the clever, strategic choices that will result in sustained and successful outcomes for nature and communities.


Jonny Hughes is WCMC Chief Executive Officer and Neil Burgess is Chief Scientist at UNEP-WCMC.

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