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Conserve half of the planet “in the right places” to save it – report

Half of the planet’s land needs to be protected over the next decade if we are to prevent ecosystem collapse and runaway climate change, according to a group of scientists.

Over the last 50 years, humans have dismantled and disrupted natural ecosystems around the world and changed the Earth’s climate. Farming, logging, hunting, development and global commerce have caused species to disappear at a rate that is tens to hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction over the past 10 million years. Human’s disruption of the natural world has now caused the Covid-19 pandemic which continues to infect millions across the planet and devastate Indigenous populations.

But researchers, led by Eric Dinerstien wildlife scientist and director at the conservation organisation RESOLVE, have worked out a strategy which they believe will save the planet’s rich biodiversity, prevent future pandemics, protect Indigenous communities and meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping warming below 1.5C.

The work builds on a framework called A Global Deal for Nature that the researchers created, which sets out targets and policies required to prevent ecosystem collapse and runaway climate change. The strategy laid out a roadmap to protecting half of Earth’s terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments by 2030. However, they didn’t specify where these safeguards were needed.

Their latest project, the Global Safety Net, uses data on protected areas, intact landscapes, biodiversity importance and carbon absorption and storage, to show where exactly conservation action on land should be prioritised. It is visualised on an open-access online platform.

Overall, they found that in addition to the 15.1% of the world’s land that is already protected, 35.3% will need to be added over the next 10 years to keep the planet under the 1.5C threshold and stave off ecological collapse.

Moreover, they estimated that an increase of just 2.3% more land in the right places could save the planet’s rarest plant and animal species within five years.

Where?

Some 50 different areas defined by their unique ecologies and geologies within just 20 countries hold the lion’s share of conservation potential, according to the report.

Among them is the Sahelian Acacia Savanna, a vast grassland that stretches across the top of Africa from Senegal to Sudan, the Central Range Papuan Montane Rainforests shared between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Indonesia’s Sulawesi Montane Rainforests, Madagascar Humid Forests, and Mindanao-Eastern Visayas Rainforests in the Philippines.

These areas occupy the top five spots in terms of the amount of land that could be protected in the future, together totalling some 183,000 square kilometres (70,658 square miles) of protection potential and nearly 2% of the planet’s land area.

The app also ranks countries on how much of their ecologically important land areas are under official protection, which is broken down into three lists based on the size of the country. For “large” countries, Nigeria scored the top spot in terms of protection level, Brazil is #15, the US is #34, Indonesia is #47, and Somalia was ranked lowest at #70.

The researchers are aware that just because an area is protected does not mean it will be conserved, as evidence with the fires burning in Brazil or the spiralling deforestation and oil spills in Nigeria. But they say protected areas provide much needed accountability and a metric with which to measure conservation effort

Indigenous lands

One of the key findings from the analysis was that 37% of the proposed lands for increased protection overlap with Indigenous lands, a vital finding as these communities stand to lose the most from ecosystem collapse and climate change.

This is why, according to the authors, the Global Safety Net calls for better protection for Indigenous communities. They believe the goals are achievable by “upholding existing land tenure rights, addressing Indigenous land claims, and carrying out supportive ecological management programs with Indigenous peoples”.

Cost

The UN estimates the degradation of land and marine ecosystems undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people and costs about 10% of the annual GDP in loss of species and ecosystems services.

“Literally billions of dollars are being spent trying to invent technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere with very little to show for it. Meanwhile we can protect the spectacular diversity of life on this planet while simultaneously providing all the ecosystem services humanity needs by protecting and conserving the 50% of lands identified in the GSN,” according to report co-author, Karl Burkart.

“Based on new economic analysis, we estimate that the global safety net would cost about US$200 billion a year to manage. This is a tiny investment for a massive return, as nature provides US$33 trillion in ecosystem services every year,” he added.

The researchers plan to release an updated version of the Safety Net next year that will include more data layers. They are also developing technology to help monitor elephant populations in the hope of reducing human-elephant conflict and prevent poaching, as well as a system that detects logging trucks before they get a chance to start cutting down trees.

But the main thing, the researchers say, is that governments must act – and soon.

“Human societies are late in the game to rectify impending climate breakdown, massive biodiversity loss, and, now, prevent pandemics,” they write. “The Global Safety Net, if erected promptly, offers a way for humanity to catch up and rebound.”

“Advances being championed under the two conventions responsible for biodiversity and climate— the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—must be accelerated if we are to protect the abundance and diversity of life on Earth and stabilise the climate,” they add.

The researchers want the safety net to be used by countries as a “dynamic tool to assess progress towards conservation targets” that would pair with the Paris Agreement.

Take Action

If your country has ratified the Paris Agreement, what is it doing to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change (under its Nationally Determined Contributions)? The UK, for instance, is refusing to discuss the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill until Spring 2021 at the earliest. If you live in the UK, find out why or whether your MP is not helping push this forward.

Many countries have quite rightly acted with immediate action in the throes of the pandemic but are still putting off the climate and ecological emergency as an issue for tomorrow. But we are in a crisis today; every day of inaction from our governments is a deeper wound for the planet that it will take longer to heal from.

Find out what petitions are online, join protests, write to your authorities and ask what action they are taking which is commensurate to the scale of the emergency.

See how you can play a part in helping live a life that supports all life on Earth and explore the icons below:

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