We know our planet faces unprecedented impacts human activity and climate change – biodiversity loss and environmental degradation continue at alarming rates – but where are the opportunities for action? What can be done to secure a sustainable future? IUCN has developed the Red List of Ecosystems (RLE), a new tool and global standard to assess risks to ecosystems so as to inform where and how we can act. It is a tool that is already in high demand.


The Red List of Ecosystems provides a unified standard for assessing the status of all ecosystems, applicable from sub-national to global levels. It is based on criteria for performing evidence-based assessments of the risks of ecosystem collapse, as measured by reductions in geographical distribution or degradation of key processes and components. It tells us whether ecosystems are approaching the final stage of degradation (a state of Collapse), whether they are threatened at Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable levels, or if they are not currently facing significant risk of Collapse (Least Concern).

The science underpinning the risk assessments has been developed over time with hundreds of experts around the world – from Australia to Finland to Kenya to Venezuela. The outcome is a scientifically robust conservation tool that fills a critical gap. Importantly – the Red List of Ecosystems helps to communicate the risks and their causes to those who make the key decisions around how lands and seas are managed, developed and used. In short, four qualities of the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems criteria: generality; precision; realism; and simplicity are imperative to its success.

A recently published paper, The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems: Motivations, Challenges, and Applications authored by David Keith et al. describes the challenges and solutions towards a workable balance between a scientifically robust method, one that is broadly applicable across the world’s forests, deserts, rivers and deep oceans, and one from which conservation and land/water use action can be derived. These actions will improve natural resource and land/water use management and enhance the security and livelihoods of people. Much scientific dialogue has focused around key technical challenges in the Red List of Ecosystems processes such as ecosystem classification, measuring ecosystem dynamics, degradation and collapse, and setting decision thresholds to delimit ordinal categories of threat.

“We’ve already seen from our experience with countries that have applied the Red List of Ecosystems that it can significantly improve outcomes of legislation, policy and management decisions ecosystem conservation” says David Keith. A growing ensemble of applications demonstrates productive insights for ecosystem management that a Red List of Ecosystems assessment can produce. “Although much has been achieved in a short time,” he says, “we understand the importance of an active research and development agenda to address user needs and new challenges. We can now work towards comprehensive risk assessments for whole landscapes, seascapes and nations to produce major improvements in ecosystem management.”

To this end the IUCN team are producing up to date and clear application guidelines. Another recently published paper, A practical guide to the application of the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems criteria by Jon Paul Rodriguez et. al provides guidance on how to apply the methodology. It summarizes ‘best-practice’ methods for ecosystem assessments and explores the application of the Red List of Ecosystems within and outside of conservation. The Red List of Ecosystems assessments form one basis for integrating ecosystem management with water/land use management at national and sub-national scales and thus make the links between conservation and development.

When the Red List of Ecosystems is used in tandem with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ it creates a strong and far-reaching foundation for well-informed conservation planning, natural resource and land/water use management at the most appropriate scales and so forms an important contribution to sustainable development.

More resources on the Red List of Ecosystems can be found here.