19 Dec 2017 Story Ecosystems

Protecting biodiversity, Norwegian style

By Gudrun Schneider and Øyvind Andreassen, Ministry of Climate and Environment, Norway; and John Crump, GRID-Arendal

In the years since the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993, evidence has mounted that biodiversity around the world is in trouble.

During this time, numerous studies have found that the rate of extinctions is increasing. A 2017 study used the strongest language yet in describing the current “biological annihilation” and underlining “the seriousness for humanity of Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event”.

Against this background, countries around the world are writing their National Biodiversity Action Plans to guide the development of their biodiversity policies.

Norway’s action plan will bring the world closer to realizing the biodiversity convention’s Aichi Targets. A main goal of these global targets is to ensure that, by 2020, “people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably”. While the Aichi Targets are global in scope, national action is essential to achieving them.

Geiranger fjord

The Aichi Targets are reflected in Norway’s three national biodiversity targets:

  • Achieving good ecological status in ecosystems;

  • Safeguarding threatened species and habitats; and

  • Maintaining a representative selection of Norwegian nature (the conservation of areas covering the whole range of habitats and ecosystems).

A main goal of Norway’s biodiversity action plan is to ensure that the country’s nature management regime is sustainable and that pressure from human use is controlled to allow ecosystems to maintain “good ecological status.”

Expert committee set up

In 2016, the Ministry of Climate and Environment established an expert committee that began to develop scientifically based criteria to determine good ecological status. These criteria are the first step in developing management objectives for ecological status in different areas (see figure 1).

The expert committee defined good ecological condition as a condition where only small deviations from intact nature are accepted. Intact nature is defined as “not significantly affected by modern industry and systemic human effects”. The expert committee developed a baseline period against which to measure change. It looked at the “near past” – from 1960-1990 – calling it the “Normal Period”. It said extensive traditional land management practices, such as grazing, haymaking, fire and hunting, are “integral parts of semi-natural nature types”.

ecological status

The committee identified seven properties that characterize ecosystems in good ecological condition. These properties relate to primary production, distribution of biomass between trophic levels, diversity of functional groups, important species and biophysical structure, area estimates in relation to species survival (landscape ecological patterns), changes in species composition, and abiotic factors.

Achieving good ecological status is based on the idea that well-functioning ecosystems benefit society as a whole, and that we have an obligation to pass them on in a healthy state to future generations.

Balancing different interests

One problem for the Norwegian authorities is the lack of clear, agreed upon management objectives in most ecosystems, even though “sustainable management” is specified as a goal in a number of national statutes. This results in differing views on the need for action and questions over how to strike a balance between different interests. Agreement on clearly defined management objectives for the different ecosystems would provide a better basis for making decisions that meet multiple objectives.

However, it will not necessarily be Norway’s objective to achieve good ecological status everywhere. If other public interests weigh more heavily, it may be decided that it is acceptable for parts of an ecosystem to have less than good status. These interests might include different land-use objectives and industrial uses such as forestry, agriculture, housing, fisheries, mining, transport and communications. How to weigh different interests will be examined and decided when management objectives are developed for the ecosystems. In addition, pressures that are not under national control, such as climate change, ocean acidification and long-range transport of pollutants, may make it impossible to achieve good ecological status everywhere.

Norway landscape
Snøhetta, Oppland © Øyvind Andreassen

The Government will consult stakeholders and develop management objectives for ecological status in different ecosystems. This process will take into consideration which types of areas or which parts of each ecosystem should achieve good ecological status, taking all necessary factors into consideration. Once the management objectives for ecological status have been established, the Government will organize the use of policy instruments that will either maintain ecological status in accordance with the agreed objective, or improve it in areas where ecological status is poorer than stipulated by the management objectives.

Managing nature more effectively

Norway will use this system as a tool to make nature management more effective and to set priorities for restoration projects in accordance with Aichi Target 15. This target focuses on ecosystem resilience and calls for “restoration of at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems” to contribute to “climate change mitigation and adaptation and to combating desertification”.

The aim is to have a management system based on clearly defined objectives for ecological status in place by 2020. The first steps have been taken and are reflected in the recommendations of the June 2017 report of the expert committee, which looked at “scientific indicators” for sea, forest, mountain, wetland, cultural landscape and open lowland ecosystems.

“The government is taking the long-term perspective into account in the management of nature,” says Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen. “We will ensure future generations' ability to create values ​​based on well-functioning ecosystems. The work of the expert committee is important for the government to be able to adopt accurate and sustainable goals."

The expert committee’s chair, Signe Nybø of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, spoke to a Norwegian newspaper about the importance of assessing the country’s ecosystems. Nybø said indicators “reveal changes in nature that we do not discover with the naked eye and that happen without notice...

“With better knowledge about the state of ecosystems, we can intervene and stop, or at least reduce, negative development before it becomes impossible to turn around.”

For more information, contact Janet Skaalvik