New Science Highlights Urgency, Opportunity for Scaling Global Conservation Ambitions

Corcovado-Matapalo Biological Corridor, Costa Rica. Credit: David Garcia, Ecodivers Costa Rica

Corcovado-Matapalo Biological Corridor, Costa Rica. Credit: David Garcia, Ecodivers Costa Rica

How much of the planet’s land is untouched by the impacts of humans? How much has experienced only moderate impacts from development and industry? A new analysis by scientists at The Nature Conservancy and Conservation Science Partners seeks to answer these questions and, in doing so, makes a strong argument for the urgent need to step up conservation efforts across the globe.

By mapping out the extent of human modification, researchers discovered that only 5 percent of land on the planet is unmodified by humans – 95 percent of lands, from north to south, have experience some form of human impact. The analysis measures impacts by mapping thirteen stressors, including human settlement, agriculture, transportation infrastructure, mining and energy production, and electrical infrastructure.

At first blush the findings are sobering. But upon closer review, and by considering degrees of human impact, they also offer hope that a concerted effort to permanently protect more of the planet’s lands as parks, conservation areas, and indigenous protected areas can still stem the tide of wildlife extinction and safeguard the majority of the world’s ecosystems.

According to the study, 84 percent of the planet’s land area can be classified as having either low or moderate impacts from human development. When the data is analyzed across 803 ecoregions – an indication of lands with different, distinctive geographies and ecologies – they found that 81 percent of the Earth’s ecoregions have experienced low or moderate impacts; 19 percent of the ecoregions have experienced high or very high impacts.

Put differently, a preponderance of the Earth’s lands have not been wholly consumed by human development.

Percentage of ecoregions in low, moderate, high, and very high modification classes

Source   : Managing the middle: A shift in conservation priorities based on the global human modification gradient

Source: Managing the middle: A shift in conservation priorities based on the global human modification gradient

As the authors describe, lands with a low degree of modification “represent vital areas where biodiversity and ecological processes are expected to be relatively intact and resilient,” while moderately impacted lands comprise “natural remnants altered to varying degrees amidst a human‐modified matrix.” Notably, moderately modified ecoregions “retain up to 50% of low modified lands,” creating opportunities to protect intact lands, restore degraded areas, and safeguard wildlife.

So what do these findings mean for global conservation efforts – and the ongoing work to protect at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030 en route to protecting 50 percent of the planet by 2050?

It means nations need to move quickly and purposefully to protect remaining wild places, beginning with securing protections in areas that have experienced little or no human modification, alongside areas with high biodiversity value. As importantly, it means identifying and protecting expanses within moderately modified areas – and, where necessary, restoring  healthy functions to degraded lands – safeguarding the integrity of contiguous, intact landscapes. Establishing new parks and protected areas adjacent to development not only provides refuge for wildlife, but also benefits nearby human population centers by providing fresh water, ameliorating air pollution, and dampening the impacts of climate change.

What these findings should not trigger is hopelessness. Humans have significantly altered the surface of the planet – that’s undeniable. But it’s still not too late to act.

Greg Zimmerman