Nearly half of the planet’s surface needs additional conservation protection if the biodiversity crisis is stopped, a major new study has found.
At least 64.7 million square kilometers (25 million square miles) need “conservation attention” but overlap with areas where 1.8 billion people live – about a quarter of the world’s population – raising critical human rights challenges for environmentalists, communities and governments.
Much of the land area is already covered by some level of protection – such as a national park – or is environmentally sound, but the research finds 12.4 million square kilometers will need to be added as protected areas.
Later this year, countries are expected to agree on new targets to protect 30% of land and ocean under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) by 2030.
Dr James Allan, who led the new research at the University of Amsterdam, says the study shows the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, as well as the opportunity to act.
“If we act now, we can save these areas. But if we wait and just talk, then the losses will continue. There is pressure now on governments at the next CBD meeting to move from speech to action.”
A previous goal under the UN biodiversity convention to protect 17% of land areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas was “inadequate to halt biodiversity loss and avert the crisis,” argue the authors of the new research.
For the study, published in the journal Science, 19 scientists from institutions in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands have mapped all the places on Earth that have some protection, or are close to being wilderness. They then looked at the extinction risk for species and their geographical distribution.
“This article shows that you can reconcile great visions of conserving land with people in a way that is sensitive to human rights,” Allan said.
In 2019, a UN-backed report said about 1 million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as biodiversity is lost at an unprecedented and alarming rate.
The new analysis found that 44% of the world’s land area needed increased protection – whether through measures such as improving wildlife management, development planning or increasing the size of formally protected national parks.
About 70% of that area was relatively unchanged by humans, but those places quickly disappeared and needed urgent protection, the research found. Even so-called wild areas were at risk, the authors said, from threats such as invasive weeds, fire and climate change.
Even 1.3 million square kilometers of currently intact land could be converted to intensive human use by 2030. This problem was deepest in Africa, with the lowest risks in Oceania and North America.
Prof Brendan Wintle, a conservation ecologist at the University of Melbourne and co-author of the research, said: “The key here is not to focus on 44% of the land area, but to recognize that we need good conservation results across very the earth’s surface to conserve biodiversity.
“It could be biodiversity-positive agriculture or carbon sequestration … everything has to be on the table.
“We should remember, for example, that more than 85% of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since 1700. We have more than a million species at risk of extinction and we see the highest extinction rates since the loss of the dinosaurs. However, we still see causes of biodiversity loss, such as landfilling, to continue. “
Most of the 1.8 billion people living in the areas in need of better protection were in emerging and developing economies that, the authors said, “raise critical questions about how conservation strategies can be expanded without jeopardizing the goals of social justice.”
Dr April Reside, an ecologist at the University of Queensland and co-author, said the area, which needed attention, might seem vast, but it’s important to remember that “before humans came and drastically altered the Earth’s surface, the The whole planet was available for biodiversity. ”
“But that doesn’t mean people can’t be in those places and, indeed, for example in Australia, [Indigenous people] managed landscapes for at least 40,000 years.
“This is about making sure that while people are now in the landscape, there is attention to biodiversity as well.”
Professor Hugh Possingham, another co-author, also at the University of Queensland, said the research was an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of “first principles” about what is currently protected and where species fall through breaches.
“We’re losing a lot of species now,” he said. “This work is part of what we need to do to return the extinction rate to background levels. If we lose a million species by the end of the century, then there is no support for that.
“Future generations will look at pictures of hummingbirds and albatrosses – things that are in your backyard or in a national park – and they will be like us looking at pictures of dinosaurs. Something like 50,000 generations of people will have to deal with that. “