In their 2022 Living Planet Report, the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology left no doubt that Planet Earth is losing biodiversity. They concluded that there was “an average 69% decline in the relative abundance of monitored wildlife populations around the world between 1970 and 2018. Latin America shows the greatest regional decline in average population abundance (94%), while freshwater species populations have seen the greatest overall global decline (83%).” WWF-US & ZSL Institute of Zoology, Living Plant Report 2022: Building a Nature-Positive Society 4 (2022). Moreover, while “[l]and-use change is still the biggest current threat to nature, destroying or fragmenting the natural habitats of many plant and animal species on land, in freshwater and in the sea,” the report also warns that “if we are unable to limit warming to 1.5°C, climate change is likely to become the dominant cause of biodiversity loss in the coming decades.” Id.
These are astounding numbers to contemplate. In slightly less than 50 years, the planet has lost more than two-thirds of its vertebrate wildlife. “One million plants and animals are threatened with extinction.” Id. at 16. Not to be outdone, moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change informed us all in 2022 that “[c]limate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems.” IPCC, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability 9 (2022). Globally, tropical coral reefs and temperate kelp forests are succumbing to warming and acidifying marine waters, while drought and wildfire wipe out trees and forests—putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. The first climate change–driven extinctions have been documented, with more expected. In the meantime, ecosystems are rearranging as species shift poleward toward cooler environments.
It’s not as though lawyers, political leaders, and legislatures haven’t been paying attention. The United States enacted its Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) came into force in 1975, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD or “Biodiversity Convention”) entered into force in 1993. Through these legal vehicles and many others like them, the world seeks to protect the most imperiled species, species harmed by trade, and biodiversity more generally.
Moreover, paying heed to the reality that habitat loss remains the most important cause of species’ decline, in 2021 both the parties to the Biodiversity Convention and President Biden in the United States announced “30×30” goals—that is, to protect at least 30% of land areas and the ocean from exploitative activities and habitat destruction by 2030. The target is ambitious; according to the Nature Conservancy, for instance, only 17% of terrestrial areas and 8% of marine areas have any kind of protection. The Nature Conservancy, 30×30: How Do We Enhance Area-Based Conservation? (as updated May 4, 2023). Even so, as many of the articles in this issue suggest, the 30×30 goal has captured the imagination of many. As one example among the many legal interventions within and across multiple nations, in June 2023 the United Nations adopted the unwieldy-sounding Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction. Better known as the BBNJ, or Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, Treaty, this new Convention, if it comes into force, will amend the U.N. Conventional on the Law of the Sea to allow area-based protections in the high seas.
The articles in this issue offer hope, exploring how many forms of law are helping or could help to conserve biodiversity. The legal actors in these pages range from Native American tribes to the European Union to public interest lawyers in China. Most importantly, the articles in this issue illuminate how to initiate an “all hands on deck” effort to slow the planetary loss of biodiversity, wielding legal tools as diverse as the biodiversity they can help to protect.