Can we set aside a third of our planet for nature?

Countries urged to protect more land and oceans

It’s called a last chance for nature – 100 countries support calls to protect 30% of the planet.

The goal is to achieve this goal by 2030 and conserve forests and other vital ecosystems in order to restore the natural world.

The “30×30” target is the key ambition of the UN biodiversity summit, COP 15

But as the talks in Montreal, Canada enter their final days, there is division over this goal and many others.

Biodiversity refers to all living things, from polar bears to plankton, and how they fit together to sustain life on Earth.

COP 15, Montreal

Summit wants agreement on halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030

What’s wrong and how to fix it?

Scientists have warned that with forests and grasslands losing at an unprecedented rate and the oceans under pressure from pollution and overfishing, humans are pushing the Earth beyond safe limits. This includes the increased risk of diseases, such as SAR CoV-2, Ebola and HIV, spreading from wild animals to human populations.

Under the proposed agreement, countries would agree to targets for expanding protected areas, such as nature reserves. He is inspired by the so-called “father of biodiversity”, biologist Edward O Wilson, who called for the protection of half the Earth.

But there’s debate over how much land and sea to include, and some scientists fear the goals will be diluted.

Sudan, rhinoceros

Last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in 2018

Designating areas for nature in a meaningful way will be a challenge, but absolutely necessary, says Professor Mark Emmerson of Queens University Belfast.

“Protecting our lands and seas also allows degraded ecosystems to recover, to start functioning in a way that benefits society,” he says. Maintaining and restoring healthy wetlands and forests – which trap greenhouse gas emissions – can help humanity deal with the other major global challenge of climate change.

“Healthy ecosystems can lock in carbon and contribute to our climate mitigation goals if we give them the space to do so – in this regard, the climate and biodiversity crises are two sides of the same coin. “

Speaking to the BBC at the biodiversity conference, UN Environment Program chief Inger Andersen also pointed out that the biodiversity accord “explicitly deals with nature’s contribution to the impacts of climate change”.

Listening to “those who protect the earth”

The protection of the rights of indigenous peoples was at the center of the discussions. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was drowned out by a protest by a group of indigenous youth during his opening speech. Thousands of people took to the streets of Montreal on Saturday to demand that Indigenous voices be heard.

They occupy some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet – places that are especially vital to protect like the Amazon rainforest. But they fear being left out of decisions about what to protect and could even be evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation.

Ayisha Siddiqa, from the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, summed up some of the concerns of many communities when she spoke to the media at COP15, saying: “You cannot omit the rights of indigenous communities – of those who protect the earth – of the environment”.

March in Montreal

Hundreds of people gathered in Montreal to demand that Indigenous voices be heard

According to the UN, at least a quarter of the world’s land is inhabited or managed by indigenous communities and, where these communities have land rights, there is often a measurable positive impact on nature according to scientific studies. In Australia, Brazil and Canada, for example, there are more wildlife on the lands cared for by indigenous communities.

Milka Chepkorir, a human rights activist and member of the Sengwer indigenous peoples of Kenya’s Cherang’any Hills, says the world’s most biodiverse areas are ‘where people live’, not where they live. there are “uniformed guards with guns”.

“Indigenous people know the value of this biodiversity and live in harmony with it,” she told BBC News.

Aslak Holmberg of the Saami Council, who lives in Njuorggán on the Finland-Norway border, echoed his words: “It’s mainly in the Saami areas that we have a more or less unmodified nature – it’s is proof of our conservation work”. he said.

Which third party are you protecting?

Another point of contention is how to divide the globe. Should each country agree to protect 30% of its territory or should this be a global objective, focused on protecting the most precious biodiversity?

National Park, Kenya

Most of the remaining global biodiversity is found in the Global South

According to the conservation group WWF, countries are turning to the latter. The general feeling during the negotiations is that there should be an overall objective to ensure that we keep the most important places, says Lucia Ruiz Bustos from WWF Mexico.

But these protected areas must be managed effectively. In other words, it’s not just about what part of the land and sea is protected, but what is allowed to happen in those areas.

Conservation must include restoration

In many cases, setting aside land without active restoration does little for wildlife.

In England, the government says it protects around 28% of land for nature. But in reality, the figure is closer to 5%, according to one report.

And while 38% of the seas around the British Isles are designated as marine reserves, many are still subject to damaging fishing practices such as bottom trawling, where fishing gear is dragged along the seabed.

puffin family

Seas cannot be forgotten in talks, environmental groups warn

“We want the UK government to show leadership internationally at COP15, but also to deliver on these commitments at home,” said Dr Christine Tuckett of the Marine Conservation Society.

Don’t forget the oceans

The group’s analysis suggests that a recently introduced regulation to ban bottom towed fishing at Dogger Bank – a large North Sea sandbar – is showing signs of success with a “huge reduction in bottom fishing sailors” in the protected area.

“If we are to achieve 30% of land and seas protected by 2030, our ocean cannot be forgotten,” said Marine Conservation Society CEO Sandy Luk.

“When our ocean is protected, habitats can recover and support the incredible biodiversity of life in our seas.”

Who pays to protect a third of our planet?

There are also questions about who foots the bill for nature restoration, with suggestions that wealthier countries that have lost much of their wildlife should pay poorer countries with intact forests and areas wildlife to carry out conservation work.

The question of how financial flows to the poorest countries is a big unresolved problem.

And while a deal to protect 30% of land and seas would be seen as a milestone, scientists warn that this alone would not be enough to stem biodiversity loss.

Follow Helen and Victoria on Twitter @hbriggs and @vic_gill

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