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The hottest number in conservation is rooted more in politics than science

The goal to protect 30 percent of the Earth is more arbitrary than you might think.

Amanda Northrop/Vox
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

Right now, in the conservation movement, a lot of people are fixated on a single number: 30.

The US and more than 50 other countries have pledged to conserve 30 percent of their land and water by 2030 as a means to help thwart the biodiversity crisis.

Biodiversity tends to increase with the area of land or water conserved, yet just 16 percent of global land is in protected areas today (in the US, it’s closer to 12 percent), according to the World Database on Protected Areas. Intact ecosystems also play a major role in mitigating climate change.

As conservationists have recognized the importance of protecting rich ecosystems before they’re bulldozed, drained, deforested, or abandoned, “30 by 30” has become a rallying call for the movement’s most influential organizations, political leaders, and advocates.

“This effort goes to the heart of our mission to protect the wonder of our world,” Jill Tiefenthaler, CEO of the National Geographic Society, a group backing the target, said in a 2020 interview.

So, what makes 30 percent the magic number? Is it some kind of biological threshold, above which nature will flourish and we will avert total ecological collapse?

Not exactly.

As it turns out, “there’s no scientific basis for 30 percent,” Eric Dinerstein, the lead author of a widely referenced academic paper, “A Global Deal for Nature,” which calls for putting 30 percent of land in protected areas, told Vox. “It’s arbitrary.” (Disclosure: I briefly worked with Dinerstein several years ago when I was a research analyst at the World Resources Institute.)

Given the urgency of the situation, there’s an acute tension around how ambitious to be in conservation goal-setting. Often, targets laid out by scientists are at odds with what governments will find palatable. And for any goal to be successful, for that matter, many argue the world needs a new paradigm for conservation altogether — one that doesn’t exclude Indigenous people.

Why targets for protecting land and oceans are essential

As the human population has expanded, we’ve destroyed all kinds of habitats to construct housing, extract commodities like timber or gold, and grow food. That’s left us with rapidly shrinking patches of intact ecosystems that can — and do — support biodiversity, but with a fading effect.

To avert catastrophe, we’ll need to roll back that pattern and dedicate more land to support healthy, functioning ecosystems. And long ago, the conservation movement realized that to get there, countries would need to push each other to both make and keep commitments.

There are existing targets for the coverage of protected areas, set under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). CBD is an intergovernmental agreement, much like the Paris Agreement, but for biodiversity. In 2010, it set a number of conservation targets — including those that called for the protection of 17 percent of global land and 10 percent of oceans by 2020.

The reality, however, is that those smaller percentages simply aren’t enough, said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, a group spearheading the global 30 by 30 push. (The group is funded by the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss and works in partnership with the National Geographic Society.)

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Hawaiian Islands region, seen from Air Force One. Protections for this deepwater habitat were expanded by President Obama in 2016.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

30 by 30 is by no means the first effort to protect a large chunk of Earth for the sake of biodiversity. In his 2016 book Half-Earth, renowned ecologist Edward O. Wilson argued that “only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.” (The concept of protecting 50 percent of the planet emerged decades earlier.)

But 30 by 30 is the first effort of its kind to gain such broad support.

While the target has been kicked around for years, it reached a milestone in January when a coalition of more than 50 countries led by Costa Rica, France, and the UK, called the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, announced a commitment to 30 by 30.

“We know there is no pathway to tackling climate change that does not involve a massive increase in our efforts to protect and restore nature,” said Zac Goldsmith, the UK’s minister for Pacific and the environment, when the commitment was announced.

The US is notably not part of that pact. But in his first full week in office, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping climate-related executive action that gave the Department of the Interior 90 days to come up with a plan to conserve 30 percent of American land and water. The department is set to deliver the report to the White House later this month.

“There is growing scientific consensus that we must conserve more land and water, with 30 percent representing the minimum that experts think must be conserved in order to avoid the worst impacts of nature loss to our economies and well-being,” Tyler Cherry, a spokesperson for the agency, told Vox. “President Biden has set an ambitious but achievable goal that will lift up a wide range of locally supported conservation and restoration actions, with the support of a broad range of stakeholders.”

So, 30 has no shortage of followers. Which brings us back to the debate over whether or not it’s the right number.

Why some conservationists think the 30 percent target should be higher

If this were the 1950s, 30 percent as a target would be fine, said Dinerstein, who’s now the director of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program at Resolve, a Washington, DC, nonprofit. Back then, there was more time to avert an extinction crisis, and there were plenty of intact ecosystems left outside of protected areas, he said.

Now, he says, “we don’t have that luxury.” What we really need, Dinerstein believes — echoing E.O. Wilson — is to protect half of the planet.

But 50 percent is a big number to stomach, especially when only 16 percent of land worldwide currently has that status (that number is much smaller for oceans). Instead, the authors of the “Global Deal for Nature” paper called for putting 30 percent in protected areas and another 20 in what they called “climate stabilization areas” — less strictly protected areas that would help draw down emissions.

“The inside story is that we thought that 50 percent by 2030 would just be unpalatable,” Dinerstein said of the target.

By contrast, 30 percent, and the catchy “30 by 30” phrase, could attract the backing of lawmakers, even if it’s not some kind of precise threshold. Indeed, such a universal threshold doesn’t exist.

“There’s no threshold where suddenly you’re going to get a magic response,” said Corey Bradshaw, a professor of ecology at Flinders University. “You’ve got to play the politics with respect to assigning particular values to targets or thresholds. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with biology.”

O’Donnell, however, argues that a floor of 30 percent is justified by science. What the research seems to show is that 30 percent is not a hard threshold — no one number applies across all regions. But reaching it would, indeed, benefit biodiversity, given that less than half of that is protected today. Scientists tend to agree that anything much below 30 percent is not sufficient as well. (Bradshaw also points out that a focus on percent coverage alone obscures other important aspects of conservation planning, like connectivity among areas, which can have huge impacts.)

This debate is especially relevant now. The CBD’s 196 members are preparing to convene in October, at which point they’ll consider upping the target for protected areas to 30 percent. (Absent from that member list? You guessed it — the US.)

In a statement, Johan Hedlund, an information officer at CBD, told Vox that while the “location of protected areas and their effective and equitable management is more important than simple [percentage] of land or sea area,” the 30 percent target is in line with the convention’s vision for 2050. Yet, he added, the target is still under negotiation.

Indigenous activists are more concerned with avoiding “fortress conservation” than numbers

The simple catchphrase “30 by 30” belies the many challenges to establishing acres and acres of new protected areas (PAs).

For one, effective networks of PAs require careful planning. It’s important that they represent different ecosystems and provide pathways for animals to disperse, said Bradshaw. While the US protects 22 percent of its oceans, for example, most of the PAs are in one region — around Hawaii — leaving other important ecosystems at risk.

Protected areas are also not loved by all. In fact, many Indigenous communities initially opposed 30 by 30 because they worried it would put their land rights at risk, said Andy White, a coordinator at Rights and Resources Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for land rights.

“Fundamentally, the problem is not so much the number as it is the approach,” White said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, on April 8. Referencing her trip on Twitter, she wrote, “The earth holds so much power. We must all work together to honor it.”
Rick Bowmer/AP

The conservation movement has a long history of practicing “fortress conservation,” whereby sections of nature are blocked off at the expense of Indigenous people who use the land.

“Throughout conservation’s checkered history, we have seen exclusionary conservation as a gateway to human rights abuses and militarized forms of violence,” as José Francisco Cali Tzay, who is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala and the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said last year.

Rights and Resources Initiative published a landmark study in 2020 showing that more than 1.6 billion Indigenous people, local communities, and Afro-descendants live in important areas for biodiversity conservation. Research has also shown that, in many cases, lands managed by Indigenous people hold as much biodiversity as protected areas.

“The right way to get to 30 percent is recognizing the rights of Indigenous people to their lands,” White said.

Considering Indigenous lands as part of global conservation efforts would easily breach the 30 percent target, White added. And the mainstream conservation movement appears ready to get behind this approach.

“We need more financial investments into securing land tenure rights,” O’Donnell said. “[Indigenous peoples’] rights and their approaches need to be at the forefront of 30 by 30.”

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