A stand against extinction

By John Pickrell February 27, 2023
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In a landmark agreement, the world’s nations have agreed to set aside 30 per cent of the planet for nature by 2030.

Given that the planet’s human population recently exceeded 8 billion, and a million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, slowing the global tide of biodiversity loss has never been more urgent.

In 2020 we reported on a then-radical idea to set aside half of the planet’s surface for nature – a concept embraced by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. “Half of the species described today will be gone by the end of the century, unless we take drastic action,” Wilson said. 

Three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine 188 of the world’s nations moving united towards drastic action so quickly. But in December 2022 at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, known as COP15, held in Montreal, Canada, they agreed to a plan to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030. Dubbed the 30 x 30 target, it’s a key component of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which is considered the ecological equivalent of the 2015 Paris Agreement for climate change. “It’s a hard thing to get nearly 200 nations to agree to do something together,” the Australian Conservation Foundation’s CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy, told reporters in December. 

“Protection of 30 per cent of land and oceans and restoration of 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems, both by 2030, are good targets and will begin to repair humanity’s relationship with nature,” she added. “The mission for 2030 – to ‘take urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and put nature on a path to recovery’ – is a mission statement for the world.” 

Related: The historic COP15 outcome is an imperfect game-changer for saving nature

Conservationists concur the landmark agreement doesn’t go quite far enough (for example, it delays the date from which nations agree extinction will halt entirely to 2050). But it does, for the first time, include concrete commitments for the world’s nations on halting and reversing biodiversity loss. 

Currently just 17 per cent of  Earth’s land and 8 per cent of its oceans fall under protected areas. So increasing this to 30 per cent for both in seven years is going to require an intense and consistent effort. 

Although Australia has a long way to go, it was praised by conservationists for its leadership role at COP15, pushing nations to commit to preventing any future extinctions, a promise to which Australia itself has committed. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has previously said his government understood “the urgency of the environmental challenges facing our planet” and is “committed to being a leader in the global fight to solve them”.

Marine parks already cover 45 per cent, or 4 million square kilometres, of Australia’s oceans. Currently about 24 per cent, or 1.84 million square kilometres of Australia’s landmass, is part of the National Reserve System (NRS), up from just 7.8 per cent in 1996, which shows how quickly progress can be made. For 30 x 30, WWF-Australia estimates we need to add about 460,000sq.km – more than twice the area of Victoria. This may be more achievable than it sounds.

Key to large increases in recent years has been the commitment of Australia’s First Nations people to declare their lands as Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). And much of the remaining increase to get us to 30 per cent is expected to come from new IPAs, many more of which are already under negotiation. Some conservationists warn that adding protected areas will not be enough alone to halt extinction. They point to the fact that Australia’s biodiversity health has continued to decline as the NRS has rapidly expanded. Protected areas must be well funded and tightly managed, and issues such as land clearing, invasive species, resource extraction and exploitation of the environment, that happen beyond their borders, need to be carefully controlled too. 

The 30 x 30 target is, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

Related: Going, going, gone: can we turn around our wildlife extinction crisis?