COP15: Necessary But Not Sufficient

Amy Lewis, Vice President of Policy & Communications

The United Nations convened in Montreal last week (COP15), after years of delay, to reach a new milestone in this history of global agreements about nature: to protect 30% by 2030. Politically, this is a huge step forward. Ecologically, however, the road is uncertain – if just 30% of Earth’s lands are protected by 2030 this could actually represent a step backwards for biodiversity.

The lead up to COP15 was worrying, indeed. Although over 130 countries had signed onto the Campaign for Nature’s High Ambition Coalition, which called for the protection of 30% of Earth’s lands and seas by 2030, there was still a strong push to limit the protected area target (Target 3) to 20% or even remove it altogether. Fortunately, in the final hours of the negotiations, 30×30 prevailed.

Much credit goes to the Campaign for Nature, Brian O’Donnell, and the nations who signed on to this effort for this political step forward. Nevertheless, it is important to note that while the “High Ambition Coalition” represented a “higher ambition” than any other proposal on COP15’s agenda, to call it “high ambition” is a bit of a misnomer.

Earth’s terrestrial surface is already more than 30% protected and conserved. With approximately 17% of lands designated as protected areas and another 17% stewarded by the proven millennia-old lifeways of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs), 34% is currently the status quo. Anything less would be, technically, contrary to ambition.

The scientific consensus, as recognized by the adoption of Motion 101 in September 2021 at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, is that nothing short of Half of Earth’s lands and seas is necessary to effectively address the climate and mass extinction emergencies.

What exactly is at stake if we fail to protect Earth’s biodiversity by not setting aside enough space for wild nature? According to the United Nations, more than 1.6 billion people (including 2,000 Indigenous cultures) derive their livelihoods directly from wild lands and marine areas. For this 20% of Earth’s population, wild places are their homes, grocery stores, and communal areas all in one. Beyond the impact on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, destroying even a fraction of our remaining forests, which store between 130-220 ppm carbon, thus releasing significant quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, would spell certain doom for the Paris climate targets.

We are still (if only barely) in possession of a planet with approximately half of nature left intact. When is it more feasible, economically and politically, to do what is necessary as dictated by science and protect Half? When we have to go back and restore on an unimaginable scale, including the thousands of species that may be extinct? Or to set aside Half the planet now and creatively work within these limits to create a truly sustainable society?

In ecologically terms, we are likely far more capable of achieving the half target now than we will be in 2050. Is it worth waiting for political will to catch up even as the ecological fabric of our world disintegrates? While political agreements have advanced in their recognition of the crisis, their answer to that question is still a very unambitious yes.

NOTE: WILD is one of the very few organizations actively working to build support for the protection of Half of Earth’s lands and seas, the amount of nature scientists conclude we need to successfully fight the twin existential crises of the climate and extinction emergencies. When you give to WILD you give voice to this urgently needed effort and fuel to both our on-the-ground conservation work and policy campaigns around the world. A gift of $250 pays for all of WILD’s conservation and campaign programs for one hour – making that hour yours! A gift of $2,000 pays for all of WILD’s programs for a full day. Although WILD’s team only wants you to give what you can afford, we would be thrilled to have you join this historic effort to restore and protect the infinite wild with a gift today. Thank you in advance for all you are doing to help keep Earth wild!


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