Mangroves in Abu Dhabi. Photographer: Peter Prokosch,
14/04/2021NewsEarth Commission News

Next Steps for Biosphere Interactions Working Group

Last year, the Earth Commission’s Working Group on Biosphere Interactions determined that a “safety net” needed to be woven to protect Earth’s life and ecosystems. Now, under new leadership, Working Group 2 aims to specify the extent and integrity of biomes and ecosystems needed to stay within a “safe and just corridor” for people and planet.

The inaugural team of scientists argued that multiple interlinked and ambitious goals were needed to maintain the functioning of the biosphere, addressing various facets of nature, from individual species to genetic diversity. This key synthesis has influenced the drafting of post-2020 biodiversity goals for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to be decided at the Conference of Parties (COP-15) in Kunming in October, and was published in the journal Science last October.

Now, David Obura of CORDIO East Africa, Fabrice DeClerck of EAT and the CGIAR, and Peter Verburg of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam will lead the working group in its next phase. The three Earth Commissioners have incorporated new elements into the group’s goals and focus, centered on the living components of the Earth system.

The group will consider in particular how changes in living nature — for example, the biosphere as a whole, individual ecosystems, and biodiversity — affect Earth system processes at biome scales, and nature’s contributions to people (ecosystem services) at finer scales. These parameters will guide the development of clear targets for a safe and just biosphere.

The goal is quantitative measures, for example, to answer “how much nature do we need? Where we need it? And what quality should it be?” said DeClerck, the EAT Director of Science and senior scientist with CGIAR. New team members will be invited to the group, to enhance the breadth of the scientists’ deliberations. 

The next iteration of Earth Commission Working Group 2 plans to stay connected to the 2020 working group, led by Sandra Díaz of Córdoba National University (Argentina) and Ben Halpern of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Díaz and Halpern stepped off the Earth Commission at the end of last year to focus on functional interactions and biodiversity targets in relation to securing Nature’s Contributions to People (NCPs), in a parallel working group to be hosted by the U.S. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), at UCSB.

The Earth Commissioners will collaborate closely with the NCEAS group and will include relevant outcomes in the Earth Commission’s report. The three new Co-Chairs of Working Group 2 will act as connectors between the two gatherings.

“We are looking forward to exciting discussions there,” said Verburg, a land-use expert based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Swiss Federal Institute WSL. “We will still engage with the previous working group as a member, and that group will also continue to support our work in the Earth Commission. We will have extra capacity now to address these complex issues, and we have secured a way to move forward to make progress on questions with a lot of unknowns.”

“This is a critical decade of action for biodiversity,” DeClerck said. “With only half of the terrestrial realm remaining intact, and the other half being managed with little regard for ecological integrity, the research community needs to provide clear biosphere ‘guardrails’ to align global efforts and enable local action. I’m excited about our recent progress spanning biome and ecoregion scales, but even more promising are the novel advances that we are making on ‘just’ biosphere targets.”

Questions about ocean biodiversity loom large, noted Obura, a founding director of the Kenyan non-profit research organization CORDIO, and Chair of the IUCN Coral Specialist Group. “We know even less about ocean biodiversity and how it supports planetary functions, and peoples’ livelihoods, than we do about life on land,” he said. “We don’t see quite as clearly the decline in integrity of ocean ecosystems, until tipping points are crossed and a catastrophe is before us – such as the current accelerating decline of coral reefs globally. Our work will try to identify the guardrails to steer clear from these tipping points, to pull away from them, while at the same time addressing ‘just’ targets for provisioning of benefits to people equitably.”