World leaders are meeting in Egypt right now to negotiate more ambitious goals for protecting the planet’s lands and waters

Corrientes Province, Argentina | Photo Credit: Florian Von Der Fecht

Corrientes Province, Argentina | Photo Credit: Florian Von Der Fecht

Environmental policymakers, representing more than 195 nations, are meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt from November 14th through the 29th to begin negotiating ambitious new targets for protecting the planet’s lands and oceans. The 14th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be the last time all parties meet before what is poised to be a historic 2020 meeting in Beijing where they will finalize CBD’s Strategic Plan – a guiding document to safeguard the planet’s natural resources, slow biodiversity losses, and expand ambitions for terrestrial and marine protected area targets.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that the planet is facing an unprecedented level of wildlife extinction and loss of biological diversity. Urgent action is needed to safeguard the natural world upon which we all depend.

It is against this backdrop that global leaders across sectors are highlighting the imperative for the international policymaking community to drastically increase the pace and scale at which nations protect ecologically sensitive lands and oceans. Some of the world’s top scientists, conservationists, and philanthropists are converging around an ambitious goal to protect at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030. The World Conservation Congress, a major conference attended by governments around the world and leading NGOs, passed a motion in 2016 calling for 30 percent of the world’s oceans to be “highly protected” by 2030. Philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss stepped up and committed $1 billion over the next decade to a global effort to protect 30 percent of Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030. Meanwhile, scientists, including renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson, have concluded that, ultimately, it is imperative we protect half of the planet’s lands and marine areas in order to safeguard the bulk of Earth’s plants and animals.

Cristiana Pașca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity who will oversee the negotiations, summarized what is at stake in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“The loss of biodiversity is a silent killer. It’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late… We should be aware of the dangers but not paralysed by inaction. It’s still in our hands but the window for action is narrowing.”

This month’s meetings in Egypt are occurring as scientists sound alarm bells about the costs of inaction. Last month, World Wildlife Fund scientists issued a report finding that the planet has lost 60 percent of its wildlife populations since 1970. The current rate of global species loss is estimated to be up to 1,000 times higher than the naturally occurring extinction rate and is expected to grow even further. Huge numbers of species are currently on the path to extinction, including: 14 percent of birds, 25 percent of mammals, and 40 percent of amphibians.

Despite the sobering findings, world leaders have a golden opportunity to stem the tide. Setting an ambitious goal to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030 would double the planet’s lands under protection within a decade and more than quadruple the planet’s oceans under permanent protection.

Source: UNEP-WCMC (2018), [November, 2018], Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC

Source: UNEP-WCMC (2018), [November, 2018], Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC

We know that protecting large, interconnected, and ecologically important land and seascapes is an effective strategy for preserving and strengthening wildlife populations as well as sustaining local and regional economies. We also know that in the face of global climate change, protected areas – and the ‘natural infrastructure’ they provide – alleviate some of the worst impacts of extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity. What’s more, we know protected area targets provide nations with an incentive to invest in and designate new protected areas.

This month’s negotiations will set the stage for a final agreement in 2020. If the global community fails to set ambitious targets for protecting the Earth’s lands and oceans, we will have missed a golden opportunity to address the planet’s biodiversity crisis. With these stakes at the top of mind, we have every reason to remain optimistic that world leaders will tackle the problem with the seriousness and intensity it deserves and, ultimately, protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

Greg Zimmerman