Diminishing biodiversity and worsening climate change are two environmental crises. And like most twins, they are inseparable. As each problem escalates, it strengthens the other. Similarly, any action that fights against climate change also helps to protect biodiversity and vice versa. One of the most effective ways to keep carbon in the soil and species in the landscape is through habitat protection. Enter the United Nations 30×30 goal to protect 30% of the planet by 2030.
Biodiversity and Climate
The term biodiversity most often refers to the number of species in an ecosystem. It works as a shortcut for system complexity. More diverse ecosystems tend to be more resilient than simpler ones. But it is impossible to predict the results of removing a species from an environment. Keystone species can play an outsized role in maintaining an ecosystem. Likewise, there are key ecosystems – biodiversity hotspots – that provide outsized ecosystem services on a global scale.
Besides climate change, the main causes of terrestrial habitat loss are deforestation and desertification, both of which contribute to climate change. In marine environments, overfishing combines with pollution and warming waters to reduce biodiversity. Since all ecosystems are not of equal value, an area-based conservation objective carries inherent risks. But there is no doubt that habitat conservation is an essential tool in the global effort to halt climate change and preserve functioning ecosystems.
United Nations Biodiversity Framework
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations presented the Convention on Biological Diversity. It has since been ratified by 193 nations (the United States is not one of them). Every 10 years, the convention meets to determine a new biodiversity protection framework for the next 10 years. The most recent framework was adopted at COP15 in Montreal in December 2022. frame contains four overarching global goals with 23 specific targets. The process nearly broke down on issues of financial support to poor nations for the conservation and protection of indigenous peoples’ land rights. But the aspect of the final deal that got the most attention is Lens 3, known as the 30×30 lens.
The target to protect 30% of Earth’s land, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters – roughly 30% of the planet – by 2030 is the most ambitious conservation target set to date . In its entirety, it reads as follows:
Ensure that, by 2030, at least 30% of terrestrial, inland, coastal and marine waters, in particular areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved and managed by means ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, recognizing indigenous and traditional territories, where appropriate, and integrated into wider land, sea and ocean landscapes , while ensuring that any sustainable use, if any in these areas, is fully in accordance with conservation outcomes, recognizing and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including in their traditional territories.
Critics claim that 30×30 is a more media-friendly target than a scientifically-based target. It is certainly more catchy than the names adopted for most intergovernmental initiatives. And it’s not easy to say how the first journal article who inspired the target determined the number of 30%. But an examination of the relevance scientific literature confirms that the previous targets were insufficient to curb climate change or preserve biodiversity. Reports shared by the Convention support the scientific value of the target. If the number is not correct, it is a step in the right direction.
Importantly, the new objective recognizes that which areas receive protection is as important as the size of the protected area. It also recognizes the importance of connectivity among protected areas. Currently, a third of key biodiversity areas have no protection and less than 8% of all terrestrial areas are both protected and connected. Marine biodiversity hotspots have not even been fully identified yet.
Perhaps the most crucial question is whether nations will achieve – or even pursue – the agreed target. Past performance is not promising. So far, none of the Convention’s targets have been met, with only about 5% of participating nations even coming close. A quarter of them have taken no significant action. Achieving the 30×30 target will require nearly doubling the area of land currently protected and nearly quadrupling marine protected areas.
January 2021 Biden Executive Decree suspending new oil and gas leases on public lands also included a goal to protect 30% of the United States’ coastal lands and seas by 2030. The fastest ways for the United States to move toward this goal are to expand national monuments, which the president can do without Congressional approval and reduction of extractive industries such as fossil fuel drilling and logging on public lands – a more difficult task. You can encourage your representatives in Congress to support conservation goals on public lands. However, with 70% of US land in private hands, reaching 30×30 will also require private conservation efforts.