Safeguarding space for nature: where, how and why?

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Mike Hoffmann, Head of Global Conservation Programmes at ZSL, and Noelle Kumpel, Head of Policy at BirdLife International, explore the complexities of safeguarding space for nature ahead of ZSL's symposium in February.  

Mongolia landscape

It is well established that the Earth is in the midst of a major biodiversity crisis, with one-fifth of vertebrate species threatened with extinction, and global vertebrate populations set to decline by two-thirds by 2020. The continued loss of natural ecosystems also accelerates and increases vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, disproportionately impacting the poor.

Eight years ago, the world’s countries agreed an ambitious plan for biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) including a target to protect, by 2020, at least 17 per cent of land and freshwater and 10 per cent ocean, particularly areas of importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. They agreed that this would be achieved through systems of effective, equitable and ecologically-connected protected areas, as well as through the use of other effective area-based conservation measures, such as sacred natural sites or watershed protection policies. A mid-term review of progress against this target found that while considerable progress has been made in terms of absolute coverage - around 15 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial and 7 per cent of its marine surface is now subject to some degree of formal protection - significant challenges in meeting the other aspects of this target remain that must be addressed.

Over the next few years, governments will be reviewing the current Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and considering what sort of update is required to meet our shared vision of conserving biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem services and a healthy planet for all, as part of a wider sustainable development agenda agreed under the United Nations. A key point of discussion will be considering whether the current target that aims to set aside space for nature (Target 11) is adequate, and, if not, what proportion of space actually needs to be conserved - and how - in order to sustain life on Earth.

Kauai Napali Coast

Available evidence already suggests that, even if Target 11 were to be achieved at a global level in simple percentage terms, nearly double the area would realistically need to be protected to achieve, cost-efficiently, protected area coverage targets for all countries, ecoregions, important sites and species. Some proponents have gone so far as to use this and other evidence, backed up by public opinion polls, to support calls for 50 per cent of the Earth to be protected.

Countering proposals for formally setting aside more of the Earth for nature, other viewpoints see people as part of nature rather than separate from it and advocate for tackling consumption and inequality, as the root causes of environmental degradation, and instead letting nature share our space. The argument is that by focussing more on space and actions outside protected areas, for example by sustainably managing areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry (as called for in Target 7), we stand a greater chance of meeting the CBD’s vision whilst also addressing other global goals such as alleviating poverty, tackling climate change and feeding a growing population.

Mongolia Gobi desert
Noëlle Kümpel

These debates and more will be the focus of a dedicated symposium being hosted at ZSL London Zoo in February 2018 by ZSL and National Geographic Society, in partnership with IUCN, BirdLife International/RSPB, UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The event will bring together scientists, conservation practitioners, policy-makers, civil society and others to cut through the rhetoric, review the science and propose some clear evidence-based recommendations for governments as they enter these important negotiations.

Our expectation is that while participants’ views may not align on everything, we can at least forge some common agreement on how best to achieve a more effective strategy on safeguarding space for nature. We see this as a key contribution to halting and reversing the plummeting trends in wild species and wild spaces, and securing a sustainable future for the rest of life on Earth, including ourselves.

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