After decades of playing Cassandra, warning of doomed species only to see more disappear every year, conservationists at the World Conservation Congress in South Korea last month adopted a new approach to saving the planet.
Instead of cataloging only what is going wrong, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature also will track and reward successful efforts to conserve species and their environments. The IUCN plans to launch two programs as complements to its warning-filled "red lists": a Green List of Well-Managed Protected Areas and a Green List of Species.
"The concept of a green list is that it can throw a spotlight on things that are actually working," said Trevor Sandwith, director of IUCN's Global Protected Areas program.
"We already have well-managed, protected areas in the world, which no one is recognizing," Sandwith told OurAmazingPlanet.
Red list, green list
The IUCN, founded in 1948, is the world's largest global environmental group. It publishes the Red List of Threatened Species, which measures extinction risk, and recently created a Red List of Threatened Ecosystems, which measures an ecosystem's risk of collapse.
An ecosystem is an area of land or water plus the species living there. For example, an ecosystem could be a lake or system of lakes, a mountain or mountain range, a river or river basin, a coral reef or group of reefs, an expanse of desert or a set of caves.
The Green List of Well-Managed Protected Areas will provide incentives and rewards for countries that skillfully juggle the competing interests that threaten ecosystems, such as developers, farmers and thirsty suburbanites. The IUCN plans to publicly report how each country nabs a spot on the list, so others can mimic their success.
For example, the green list can show it's not only First World countries that have the resources to serve as an example of global best practices, Sandwith said. "We think it's motivating to show where success is occurring, and to show why and how it's occurring, because if someone is getting it right, then that's the model to copy," Sandwith said.
One of the first green list test cases is Colombia's Parques Nacionales Naturales — that country's national parks system. [Images: Trekking the Coastal Mountains of Colombia]
Advantages of appearing on the green list include showing off solid measures of improvement to development partners and donors, and perhaps using the list as a carrot to push governments to fund ecosystem-protection projects. "It's a really good incentive for donors and governments to invest more," Sandwith said.
The IUCN plans to kick off the Green List of Well-Protected Areas in 2014, at the World Parks Congress in Australia.
Not just avoiding extinction
The Green List of Species, meanwhile, is still in the concept stage. The idea was approved by the IUCN at the World Conservation Congress. Organizers will return to the IUCN's next meeting in 2016 with a full plan for implementing the list.
The Green List of Species would include species identified as fully conserved, which are those that exist in ecologically significant numbers, interacting fully with other species in their ecosystems, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which pushed for the motion.
Elizabeth Bennett, WCS vice president of species conservation, said the green lists are necessary because the conservation community should be presenting an optimistic and inspirational vision of a future in which species are integral parts of functional ecosystems.
"We need to show that conservation is much more than just avoidance of extinction" as assessed by the Red Lists, Bennett told OurAmazingPlanet by email.