Are These Aggressive Conservation Targets The Key To Halting Climate Change?

Just 14.8 percent of the world's land is formally protected.

Two leading scientists say we must preserve 30 percent of the planet's land, oceans and forests by 2030, followed by close to 50 percent by 2050, if we want to stop mass species extinction and protect humanity from some of the worst effects of climate change.

The estimates were laid out in the journal Science by Jonathan Baillie and Ya-Ping Zhang. Baillie, the executive vice president and chief scientist of the National Geographic Society, spoke to A Plus about the targets and why they were so important for the planet.

"With business as usual, we're going to lose many of the world's last remaining wild places over the next 20 years," Baillie said. "It's morally an obligation to maintain the great diversity of life, but there is also a human security element that we have to think about. It's going to be very hard to feed the growing population if we're dealing with significant climate change in the future and if we don't have our weather and climate change systems working as they traditionally have."

Right now, just 3.6 percent of oceans and 14.7 percent of land is formally protected, according to the Science editorial. And of those, many are not effectively managed. One-third of terrestrial protected lands are under "intense human pressure," Baillie and Zhang wrote.

Because the case for preservation may sound boring on the surface, Baillie says he and other scientists around the world need to find more effective ways to convey to the general population how dire the need for this preservation is. 

In one example, Baillie explained that the forests of the planet are a lot like the lungs in a human body. Right now, we have a several great forests across the globe acting as the planet's lungs: the Congo Basin, the Borneo rain forests in southeast Asia, the Amazon rain forest in South America, the forests in Papa New Guinea, and even northern forests like the boreal forests in Canada and Russia. Each of these, Baillie said, effectively functions to produce oxygen, absorb human-caused in carbon dioxide emissions, and pump water and moisture through the planet. 

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But, according to Global Forest Watch, the tropics alone lost 15.8 million hectares of forest in 2017. That's the equivalent of cutting down 40 football fields worth of trees every minute, the organization said.

"It's shocking the rate at which we're deforesting our remaining forests," Baillie said. "If we remove the forests we lose the carbon value, we lose the homes for many species, but we also lose the climate regulation." 

The oceans, too, play a critical role in helping to absorb carbon dioxide. Leading climatologists point to trapped carbon emissions as one of the leading causes of climate change, and that's happening now — while the oceans and forests are largely intact. At the rate we're moving, there will be a lot fewer natural carbon absorbers on the planet in 10, 20 or 50 years. Baillie emphasized that "primary forests," or old and ancient forests, hold the most carbon and biodiversity and, thus, are the most important to protect.

While the targets may seem insurmountable, it's not all doom and gloom. On the day Baillie spoke to A Plus, the United Kingdom announced its intention to protect 30 percent of the oceans in the world by 2030, a number identical to what Baillie and Zhang had called for in their Science article. 

"Globally, it's going to be challenging," Baillie said. "But I think there is growing awareness, especially from the next generation, that we to some extent share the planet and need to make space for other forms of life… not only that, but our children and their children's future depends on us doing it."

Permanent Forest reserves in Malaysia
Visitors traverse the canopy walkway at KL Forest Eco-Park, the oldest permanent forest reserves in Malaysia Sallehudin Ahmad / Shutterstock.com

"If we don't do this," he added, "there will be a major extinction crisis and we'll lose many of the services the natural world provides. This will make it difficult to obtain or sustain many of the major sustainable goals. If you don't have a healthy planet, you can't have a healthy global community. This is the message that we need to get better at articulating if we're going to achieve the goal."

And if they do hit their targets? 

Baillie says the most important thing is that all living things on the planet will become more resilient. If humans can't reduce their carbon emissions, but oceans and forests stay intact, we will be better equipped to absorb carbon. If an invasive species begins destroying crops or wildlife, the planet will be more resilient to the damages. Right now, our ecosystem has something called "redundancy," where certain species serve similar roles. That way, if one species goes extinct, it doesn't throw the entire ecosystem into tumult. But Baillie said we are pushing the limits of that redundancy and reaching the point where so many species are being destroyed — wild vertebrate populations have declined by more than 50 percent since 1970, according to Baillie's article — that redundancy won't protect us for much longer. Preservation, though, could help.

"I'm so encouraged to see the next generation come up and actually get so upset about these issues," Baillie said. "They realize we do live in this environment that we can't just keep taking from and that we have to think responsibly for our generation and also future generations. There is going to be a backlash to this world's over-consumption and we are going to think more responsibly about how we think of living with the world's ecosystems."

Cover image via  Atstock Productions / Shutterstock.

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