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Analysis: protecting 30% of the planet to save nature is not as simple as it seems

MONTREAL (Reuters) – From the lush Amazon rainforest to the frigid Arctic Ocean, the world’s landscapes, and all the wildlife they contain, are under threat, and the world needs to set aside a third of all land and sea territories to save them. UN experts say.

The call is central to the global agreement to be discussed this month at the UN biodiversity summit in Montreal. If approved at the end of the summit next week, governments would agree to set aside 30% of their land and sea territories for conservation by 2030, doubling the amount of land area and more than tripling the ocean area currently under conservation. .

More than 110 countries have come out in support of the 30 by 30 target, including Canada, France and the United States.

Proponents argue that targeting is crucial to reversing the destruction of nature. Currently, more than 1 million species are threatened with extinction, while the global insect population is declining by up to 2% each year and around 40% of the world’s remaining plant species are threatened.

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But as is often the case with science-based policy, the details matter in determining whether a 30% global conservation target can really save the world’s endangered species and places.

“The danger, as with all these types of events populated by politicians, is that they want a simple number,” said Stuart Pimm, a biologist at Duke University. “They would like to be able to walk out of Montreal and say we are going to protect 30% of the planet. But that alone is not enough.”

This key question ultimately comes down to quantity vs. quality.

There is no strong scientific argument behind a 30% threshold to prevent species loss, the experts said. In reality, it could take a much larger percentage of land or sea, or a smaller percentage, depending on the areas selected.

“30% is neither necessary nor sufficient,” Pimm said. “If we do things the right way, we protect the most biodiversity by being smart, protecting the areas that matter.”

There is a temptation, he said, to conserve vast tracts of land that no longer have many people, but also have relatively little biodiversity, such as the arctic tundra or the Sahara desert.

But it is important to protect areas with many different species, known as biodiversity hotspots, even if they are more difficult to conserve because people live there or extractive industries operate there.

Protecting narrow tracts of land and sea, such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Andes Mountains, can offer a far greater reward than protecting vast tracts of grassland, for example.

“A numerical target is not going to work,” Pimm said. “If we only had to protect 50% of the planet, and we protect the least populated 50%, it would do very little for biodiversity.”

A June 2022 study in the journal Science found that at least 44% of the global land area would be needed to protect areas with high species diversity, prevent the loss of intact ecosystems, and optimize representation of different landscapes and species. But more than 1.8 billion people live in these areas.

However, co-author Hugh Possingham, a researcher at the University of Queensland, noted that “although there is nothing magical about 30%… targets help focus nations’ attention.”

“I see 30% as a target that most countries can reasonably achieve by 2030,” he said, adding that some countries, such as Bhutan, had already surpassed this target.


One of the key points of tension that has emerged in the 30 by 30 debate at COP15 is whether the goal should be realized at the global or national level.

It’s an important distinction, scientists and negotiators said. Some countries are small, without much land to set aside for nature. Others are vast and still contain a high degree of biodiversity, such as tropical forest nations like Brazil and Indonesia. If such countries protected only 30% of their territories, that could result in significant loss of nature.

“Some ecosystems are more diverse and more fragile,” Possingham said. “Places like the Amazon need much larger fractions than 30% to conserve their biodiversity and maintain the ecosystem functions that stabilize the planet’s climate.”

Currently, just under 50% of the Amazon is under some form of official protection or indigenous administration, so a national commitment to conserve 30% would represent a significant reduction.


The other dispute affecting 30 for 30 is over what should count as protection. Some countries might allow people to live inside protected areas or promote indigenous stewardship of these lands. Some could even allow extractive industries to operate under permits and regulations. In other cases, conservation areas are off limits to everyone.

The European Union has proposed allowing activities such as logging, mining and fishing to take place under conservation management in 20% of protected areas, while 10% would remain under stricter protections.

The idea prompted Greenpeace, an environmental nonprofit, to accuse the EU last week of trying to water down language 30-30, which the EU denied.

“Whatever activity eventually occurs in those areas should not harm biodiversity and ecosystem functioning,” Ladislav Miko, the Czech Republic’s special envoy for biodiversity with the European Commission, said at a press conference last week. .

EXPLAINER-Why have previous objectives to protect nature failed in the last decade?

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(Reporting by Gloria Dickie; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.

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