It's all very well protecting 30% of the planet, but what about the other 70%?

Call to action 23 March 2022
The key measure planned for the coming COP on biological diversity concerns the protection of 30% of the planet. As international talks on biodiversity are being finalized, three CIRAD researchers point out that the new global biodiversity strategy also needs to cover the 70% of zones that are not protected. They also stress the need for radical change, notably in our economic system, with a shift to more sustainable production of both goods and services.
© R. Belmin, CIRAD
© R. Belmin, CIRAD

© R. Belmin, CIRAD

By the end of 2022, the final negotiations will be held in Kunming, in southern China, to establish the new global strategy for the protection of biodiversity by 2030. This decisive moment will bring together the various signatory governments of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, i.e. 196 party States plus the European Union.

Like the COPs for the climate, this meeting will examine the progress made, establish priorities and decide on work plans in a context in which everyone recognizes that the degradation of ecosystems is at least partly attributable to human activities; the scientific community and NGOs will strongly influence these talks.

The flagship measure of this new global strategy, formulated from 2020, concerns the establishment of 30%, or even 50%, of protected areas in the world, including if possible at least 10% of areas under so-called “strong” protection.

A look back at the 2010 Nagoya conference

This new framework will follow on from the one adopted in Nagoya in 2010 and characterized by 20 so-called Aichi targets, aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by 2020.

The scientific and political observation of the Nagoya framework is clear: its implementation has been an almost total failure . The only objective more or less achieved concerns the surface area of ​​protected areas on a global scale: 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of marine and coastal areas. Why has that goal, and only that goal, been achieved?

Details of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets

Protected areas top the list

This objective was one of the most specific and measurable of the global framework adopted in Nagoya. The nature conservation community, on the other hand, had already been well organized for years to be able to create and manage new protected areas.

This objective has benefited from a real "business model" in this area, linking different actors to ecological interests (separating nature from human pressures contributes to the preservation of biodiversity), policies (creating protected areas is an easily communicable political act) and financial (various organizations sustain a conservation economy ranging from donors to NGOs, including beneficiary administrations and the communities concerned).

For the period 2010-2020, it is not easy to know what part of the investment and what mobilization of the actors have been concentrated on this sole objective of increasing the surface area of ​​protected areas. But this effort was certainly much greater than that devoted to the other Aichi targets.

At least 30% of land and 30% of sea areas

It is reasonable to believe that strictly protecting a part of the planet will preserve at least part of its biodiversity. This vision is not universally shared, notably by indigenous peoples and local communities who very often reconcile biodiversity and agricultural production.
This vision is closely linked to the historic American approach to the protection of a wild nature under glass, as in the great parks of the American West... even if the United States of America is the only country not to to be a negotiator of the future global agreement, the United States and the Vatican not being signatory “parties” to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Map showing protected area distribution on a global level. More than 22.5 million km² of land and 28 million km² of sea and coastal areas are currently protected., CC BY-NC-ND

Map showing protected area distribution on a global level. More than 22.5 million km² of land and 28 million km² of sea and coastal areas are currently protected., CC BY-NC-ND

Let us recall the key objective of the current negotiations: to protect at least 30% of the land and at least 30% of the oceans by 2030. This goal has also become the main object of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and Peoples, co-chaired by Costa Rica, France and the United Kingdom, and launched in Paris on January 11, 2021 during the One Planet Summit on biodiversity.

Might focusing on protected areas not be such a good idea?

Although the expansion of protected areas is an essential instrument of biodiversity protection policies, it has been proved that “high levels of ambition for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity […] cannot be achieved without transformative changes".

Such changes are undoubtedly much more complex and difficult to deal with politically and economically than the creation of protected areas. These are, according to IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) in its 2019 global assessment:

A fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development.

Clearly identified degradation factors

The text under negotiation for this new global biodiversity framework, which should therefore be finalized in 2022, supports these transformative changes, while some States, on the contrary, show their interest in the status quo.

As in the previous framework, protected areas are far from being the only objective identified. And the magnitude of the efforts and means to be implemented for all of these objectives is essential, since they are all interconnected.

However, mobilizing or financing mainly protected areas diverts the gaze from the essential challenges to be met. The evolution scenarios proposed by the latest global biodiversity assessment thus show that if nature conservation and ecosystem restoration objectives are not combined with other concrete actions aimed at transformative change, current trends in degradation of biodiversity will continue.

Additional concrete actions must in particular target the five main direct drivers of degradation identified by IPBES in its 2019 global assessment: changes in land and sea use; the direct exploitation of certain organisms; climate change; pollution; invasive exotic species.

Transforming the global economic system

It is easy to understand that the next global biodiversity framework must also concern the 70% of unprotected areas. The challenge lies in our ability to transform the economic system towards more sustainable production of goods and services, especially for foodstuffs; to reduce consumption, waste and wastage; to support the ecological transitions of agri-food systems and those of cities with greener infrastructures; and to reduce pressures on freshwater ecosystems

In a word, to mobilize energetically on the second objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity aimed at the “sustainable use” of biodiversity.
Assessments of the financial needs to implement this new global framework estimate that only around 20% of efforts should be devoted to protected areas. The greatest investment must therefore be in stopping and/or transforming unsustainable activities and practices, and not primarily in the direct conservation of nature.

Daring to invest in transformative change

The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment assessed that 80% of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals may not be met if biodiversity degradation continues.

Alongside diverging interests, there are also common interests that could make it possible to move towards a fairer and more sustainable trajectory. The negotiators of the global framework for biodiversity are notably confronted with the question of subsidies – some 475 billion euros per year – aimed at supporting activities that are harmful to biodiversity in the agricultural, forestry or fisheries sectors.

These subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity highlight the incoherence of public policies and underline the need to go beyond sectoral approaches. It is therefore urgent to stop and redirect these financial flows in order to support the transitions of currently problematic and unsustainable sectors of activity.

Living together on Earth

The way humans behave gives the impression that they are at war with the planet and all other living species. And, in a way, in the medium and long term, at war with themselves. The political vision for 2050 of the new global framework for biodiversity is however that of… “living in harmony with nature”.

At a time when the international negotiations for biodiversity are finalizing, it is therefore urgent to focus just as much on this “remaining 70%”

The original version (in French) of this article was published in The Conversation on 17 March 2022.