Taxonomy and the GTI

The Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) is crucial to the implementation of the thematic programmes of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the achievement of its objectives.

The GTI was established under the CBD in 1998 to help resolving the so-called taxonomic impediment, i.e., the lack of taxonomic expertise and infrastructure, and the limited access to natural history collections and taxonomic information in large parts of the world. In this context, the GTI seeks to enable Parties to better understand, manage and protect their own biodiversity.

What is taxonomy?

Taxonomy is the science of describing, naming and classifying the world’s organisms (i.e., all extant but also extinct plants, animals and microorganisms) based on morphological, behavioral, genetic and biochemical observations, amongst others.

Through this process taxonomists have gained far-reaching insights into the past and present components of biological diversity.

Unfortunately, taxonomic knowledge is far from complete. In spite of more than 250 years of taxonomic classification built on Linnaeus’ binomial naming system and about 1.7 to 1.8 million species known to science to date (more than half of which are insects), only a small fraction of species on Earth have been described. The full number is unknown, but recent estimates range from 5 (± 3) to 11 million species of eukaryotes (microorganisms incorporated with relatively high uncertainty; Chapman, 2009; Mora et al., 2011; Costello et al., 2013). As far as bacteria, archaea, and microscopic fungi are concerned, Locey and Lennon (2016) predicted that Earth could be home to as many as 1 trillion microbial species.

What is the GTI and how was it established?

The Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) is a cross cutting issue of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which, given the importance of precise taxonomic information for all types of ecosystems, underpins the implementation of the Convention’s seven thematic programmes.

The GTI consists of a set of activities and objectives agreed upon by governments and supported by many different actors including governments, taxonomists, non-government and international organisations. These activities are intended to highlight issues, facilitate exchange of information, and promote technical cooperation in order to advance taxonomy worldwide.

The GTI was established in 1998 by the Conference of the Parties (COP) at its fourth meeting (Decision IV/1). Thereafter, though Decision V/9, the GTI Coordination Mechanism was created as an informal advisory group with the purpose of assisting the Convention’s Executive Secretary to facilitate international cooperation and coordinate activities under the GTI, and using the Initiative as a forum to promote the importance of taxonomy and taxonomic tools in the implementation of the CBD.

Next, at its sixth meeting in 2002, the COP endorsed a Programme of Work for the GTI (PoW; Decision VI/8), which was supplemented in 2006 via an in-depth review (COP‑8, Decision VIII/3). Further to Decision VIII/3, outcome oriented deliverables for each of the planned activities of the GTI’s PoW were determined. These were endorsed by the COP (Decision IX/22), noting that continued capacity-building activities in taxonomy would be needed. Decision IX/22 can safely be considered an important step forward for the GTI as it resonates the call for effective taxonomic work louder than ever. More specifically, concrete and timed targets for taxonomic outputs were set and relevant actors were suggested to achieve them.

Why the GTI?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has three main objectives:

  1. The conservation of biological diversity;
  2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity;
  3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

By 1998, it had become apparent that taxonomy is essential to virtually all of the work of the CBD, playing a vital role in supporting this threefold objective

Without taxonomy, successful implementation of the Convention at the local, national, regional and global levels cannot be guaranteed.
How can one adequately conserve biodiversity if one does not know its composing organisms? How can one sustainably use the components of biodiversity if one does not know unambiguously what these components are? How can one fairly and equitably share the benefits derived from genetic resources if one cannot characterise/differentiate the distinctive bearers of those resources?

In conclusion, if Parties to the Convention do not know what species live within their national boundaries, it may hinder their ability to take informed management decisions related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Although much emphasis is put on naming and describing species to denominate the components of biodiversity and to develop taxonomic tools such as identification keys and databases, these are far from the only aspects of taxonomy that are important to the implementation of the CBD. Among the most valuable assets of the taxonomic study of living organisms is the understanding gained to ensure:

  • The development of a scientific basis for biodiversity monitoring, conservation and management (e.g., based on taxonomic data concerning threatened species, species that characterise ecosystems, indicator species that are highly sensitive to changes in (a)biotic conditions in the environment, etc.);
  • The establishment of food security and sustained livelihoods, viewed from both a direct perspective (e.g., (wild) species used in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and fishery for the production of food, feed, fiber, timber, etc.) or an indirect perspective (e.g., pollinators and soil biota that increase plant productivity versus pests/pathogens/disease vectors that negatively affect plant health);
  • The execution of quarantine measures (e.g., regulation of quarantine plant pests) and the control of invasive alien species that could threaten indigenous biodiversity, i.e., native ecosystems, habitats and species;
  • The restriction of illegal trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora;
  • The identification and control of human disease vectors;
  • The management of benefits and risks associated with biotechnology.

Unfortunately, in large parts of the world, there is still a serious lack of taxonomic expertise and infrastructure, and only limited access to natural history collections and taxonomic information (including taxonomic literature, field guides, species identification keys, databases, etc.).

This problem, recognised by the Conference of the Parties (COP) as the taxonomic impediment, makes it nearly impossible for many Parties to engage in the above-mentioned taxonomy-dependent fields and meet the objectives set by the CBD.

The situation is particularly serious in the so-called “megadiverse” countries, most of which are developing countries located in the tropics or subtropics.

Therefore, in order to resolve this taxonomic impediment and to enable all Parties to better understand, manage and safeguard their own biodiversity, the GTI was established under the Convention in 1998.

How does the GTI operate?

Dual nature of the GTI

The GTI has a dual nature, encompassing both policy and implementation components.

The policy component concerns the international framework through which the Parties to the CBD identify the priorities for action and develop policy, which culminates in the adoption of a particular Decision by the Conference of the Parties (COP). Besides the COP, the policy aspect also involves the bodies that provide input to the COP, including the Coordination Mechanism of the GTI, the GTI Forum, the network of the GTI National Focal Points, and the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). Assistance in managing the processes and bringing all expertise and information together is provided by the Secretariat of the Convention (SCBD), which has a GTI Programme Officer.

The other aspect of the dual nature of the GTI is that of implementation, which seeks to actually remove the “taxonomic impediment”. Implementation occurs primarily as Parties – in particular national governments – put the COP Decisions into practice, i.e., develop policies, strategies and activities to implement nationally and/or locally what has been decided at the international level. Furthermore, COP decisions often identify taxonomic institutes, initiatives, (non-governmental) organisations, consortia or sectors which, COP believes, should play a key role in the implementation of the GTI because it is within their competence (see for example this list). Importantly, the success of the GTI does not only depend on governments and the mentioned partners; there is also an essential role for individual taxonomists, conservationists, funding agencies, etc.

Programme of Work (PoW)

Over the years, several policies or COP Decisions have been adopted on GTI activities to be undertaken by Parties and other relevant stakeholders.

The main set of activities, constituting the basis of the GTI, is defined in the Programme of Work (PoW), which was endorsed by the sixth COP (COP‑6, Decision VI/8) and further supplemented by COP‑8 (Decision VIII/3) and COP‑9 (Decision IX/22). The activities and targets of the PoW are centred around five Operational Objectives, which are:

  1. Operational objective 1 - Assess taxonomic needs and capacities at national, regional and global levels for the implementation of the Convention.
  2. Operational objective 2 - Provide focus to help build and maintain the human resources, systems and infrastructure needed to obtain, collate and curate the biological specimens that are the basis for taxonomic knowledge.
  3. Operational objective 3 - Facilitate an improved and effective infrastructure/system for access to taxonomic information; with priority on ensuring that countries of origin gain access to information concerning elements of their biodiversity.
  4. Operational objective 4 - Within the major thematic work programmes of the Convention, include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for decision-making in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components.
  5. Operational objective 5 - Within the work on cross-cutting issues of the Convention, include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for decision-making in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components.

GTI capacity-building strategies

Following the Decisions above, attempts have been made to further operationalize the GTI, i.e., to make taxonomic and other necessary (meta)data as well as collections more easily accessible, to strengthen or develop taxonomic capacities at the national, (sub)regional and global levels (e.g., regarding the use of molecular techniques), to enhance the knowledge base in various taxonomy-dependent areas to better meet the needs, and to foster collaboration among partner organisations and existing networks, among others (e.g., Decision X/39).

More concretely, in 2012, after the adoption of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets (COP‑10, Decision X/2), COP‑11 welcomed the Capacity-building Strategy for the GTI, which was built around 5 Goals and 10 Strategic Actions – linked to the activities of the GTI’s PoW – to be pursued over the period 2011-2020 (Decision XI/29). The purpose of this Strategy was to:

“develop the human resources and infrastructure necessary to generate, disseminate and use taxonomic knowledge and information in a manner that assists Parties, other Governments, organisations and stakeholders in effectively implementing the Convention as well as the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets”.

The GTI Capacity-building Strategy was also aimed at fostering national action, in an effort to better integrate, as appropriate and in a timely manner, taxonomic information and needs into the updated National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) of each Party.

Subsequently, in 2016, COP‑13 adopted the Short-term Action Plan (2017-2020) to Enhance and Support Capacity-Building for the Implementation of the Convention and its Protocols (Decision XIII/23), which included the organisation of “training of trainers” courses on the application of molecular technology for species identification.

Finally, the GTI Forum of 2018 and 2020 considered the state of advancement in taxonomy and related fields, and reviewed past and present GTI practices/deliverables in order to provide inputs for the (in)formal processes that steer the development of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

Among the direct outputs of the 2020 Forum were:

  • The joint statement from all participants, which is as a “call for action on recognising the critical role of taxonomy to underpin transformative change within the post-2020 GBF”;
  • A comprehensive technical document published as the CBD Technical Series 96, capturing the discussions held during the Forum on activities and innovations relevant to strengthening technical and scientific co-operation in support of the post-2020 GBF.