The world is losing biodiversity, biomass and soil carbon, and other ecosystem services at unprecedented rates. On current trends the Aichi targets for biodiversity and the 2020 biodiversity targets contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be missed by a wide margin.

A failure to preserve habitats and halt species extinction would have knock-on effects on the objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), since forests, peatlands, wetlands and other high carbon ecosystems store large volumes of carbon and can – if left intact – absorb a significant share of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. Moreover, most pathways towards decarbonizing energy systems foresee large negative emissions from land-use and food systems. If poorly managed, such mitigation strategies might further accelerate the loss of natural habitats and species.

In 2020 the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will convene in China to agree on the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for the CBD, including 2030 targets for maintaining biodiversity as well as a longer-term vision for nature. Two months later, countries will convene under the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) to review the level of ambition of Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) and to submit their long-term Low-Emission Development Strategies (Art. 4.19 Paris Agreement) that lay out how countries will achieve the long-term objective of the convention, which requires zero net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Meeting the ambitious objectives of the UNFCCC and the CBD requires clarity on how ambitious targets can be translated into national policies. In the case of climate change, governments have adopted the long-term target of keeping the rise of average global temperatures to “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial temperatures. Meanwhile, science has established the carbon budget, which allows governments and other stakeholders to translate the political ambition into operational benchmarks, i.e. achieving zero net emissions by 2040 or thereafter depending on whether one aims for 1.5°C or 2°C.

In the case of biodiversity and other ecosystem services, the world lacks fully integrated, science-based analyses to translate politically agreed levels of ambition into operational targets at local, national, regional, or global levels. Since habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services are highly location specific, high-resolution maps of significant terrestrial biodiversity and carbon storage as well as corresponding restoration potential using the best available scientific data can support decision making. Such integrated maps could support governments in translating politically agreed level of ambition into geospatially explicit policy objectives that can be pursued and monitored using locally appropriate policy tools and data sources.

The project

To fill this gap, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and the UN World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) have launched the Nature Map Earth initiative. With financial support from Norway’s International Climate Initiative (NICFI), this initiative will develop improved, wall-to-wall continuous, integrated maps on biodiversity, carbon, and other ecosystem values. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is supporting the analysis of plant taxa for this initiative.

The initiative will synthesize the best available data using methodologies that are globally consistent and draw on local information through consultative evaluation and validation. In this way, Nature Map Earth will help inform decision making at all levels (including CBD/UNFCCC, national, and sub-national) on what post-2020 biodiversity targets would imply. Both global and national perspectives are of course critical to the outcome of the post-2020 process. To maximize policy relevance at national and sub-national levels we will reproduce the data with the highest possible resolution. Mapped outputs will be made available at the time of the September 2019 United Nations Climate Summit with a view to provide timely input into negotiations leading to the 2020 Biodiversity COP.

Nature Map Earth will focus on synthesizing terrestrial data for biodiversity, carbon, and other ecosystem services. Building on the work of the Bending the Curve consortium of biodiversity modeling teams, which was launched by IIASA and others in 2017, the Nature Map Earth initiative will also explore geospatially explicit estimates of restoration potentials across the world. This initiative will also cooperate with National Geographic Society and other partners to combine terrestrial maps with geospatial data for ocean biodiversity and marine ecosystem services.

A particular priority of Nature Map Earth will be to enhance forest management data to support better policies for sustainable forest management and forest restoration that maximize benefits for biodiversity and climate change mitigation. To this end we will crowd-source forest management data through a Geo-Wiki as well as plant-species distribution data through a citizen-science campaign on iNaturalist. Together these campaigns will generate better forest management and species distribution data, which are both critical inputs for Nature Map Earth.

The information developed by the Nature Map Earth initiative can help prioritize areas for protection or restoration along a scale from minimum (zero) to maximum priorities. This information can then be used to identify areas to protect and/or restore in order to meet different quantitative biodiversity targets for consideration by the CBD. The analysis will allow visualization both of what the coverage might look like at global, regional, and national levels.

The maps prepared under this initiative can be combined with remote sensing and other data on land-use change to monitor progress in implementing strategies towards meeting the objectives of the CBD and the UNFCCC related to forests and biodiversity. They will also identify knowledge gaps that the scientific community and other partners need to fill. For this reason, the findings will be submitted for independent peer review through highly ranked scientific journals.

Nature Map Earth will strive for maximum transparency to help stakeholders understand the strengths and weaknesses of the data and aggregation methodologies. We will develop an interactive platform for data visualization comparisons of different area-based targets. Moreover, we will flag data gaps and aim to close them in coming years. To this end, the project will make available periodic updates of the maps and the underlying base data. Throughout, we will highlight gaps and weaknesses in available data.

Throughout, the consortium members will consult with the CBD, the UNFCCC, national governments, the scientific community, civil society, and business actors to identify the best available data and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies for aggregating and prioritizing conservation and restoration priorities. We will organize expert consultation workshops to discuss key data and methodological issues.