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Can we protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030?

Marine Protected Areas

Callum Roberts assesses the prospects in the run-up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Montreal

Covid casts a long shadow. The world has still to catch up with meetings and decisions postponed from 2020. One critical piece of unfinished business will conclude in December 2022: the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This was meant to take place in China in October 2020, but will now be held this year in Montreal. The purpose of the meeting is nothing less than deciding how to save the world.

The CBD is the hallmark international legislation that, decade by decade, sets the planetary agenda for nature conservation. The universal importance of nature is reflected in the fact that every nation of the world is a signatory to the Convention. Few other UN Conventions come this close to unanimity. Yet, two years into the present decade, we have still to decide on the conservation targets for 2030. This is unfortunate considering that the most important, long overdue steps to saving the planet have yet to be taken.

The most important decision to be made in Montreal is whether, and how much, to upgrade protected area coverage. The previous targets were to protect 10 per cent of the ocean and 17 per cent of land by 2020. Although those targets have almost been met (currently, 8.3 per cent of the ocean and 17 per cent of the land are protected), they were set in 2010, and recent science has shown them to be far too low. This year’s Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund reveals that 32,000 monitored populations of 5,230 wildlife species have declined by 69 per cent since 1970. A much bolder vision is needed to arrest and reverse these disastrous losses.

There is a second compelling reason to protect more of the living environment: climate change. No rational person can any longer doubt the reality of climate change. It is all around us in everyday lived experience.

The world has agreed to try to limit global warming to less than 2°C, and preferably no more than 1.5°C, but is struggling to take the practical steps demanded by those targets. They require not only cuts to emissions but also ways of drawing down and locking away carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. Nature is our ally here. The best means yet discovered of extracting carbon dioxide from air is plant photosynthesis. We need more nature, urgently.

Misunderstanding nature

Marine Protected Areas, implemented and unimplemented, as at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, February 2020. Photo: Marine Conservation Institute, CC-BY-SA4.0

The most ambitious target on the table for the CBD to decide is that of protecting 30 per cent of sea and land by 2030 – often known as ‘30×30’. Unsurprisingly, the target is controversial and the record here is not good. It has taken us 30 years since the Rio Earth Summit, when the CBD was created, to get where we are. Can we really more than triple the amount of sea protected and nearly double the amount of land, in just eight years? It doesn’t help the prognosis that not a single one of the other biodiversity targets set in 2010 was met by 2020. So is 30×30 just another fantasy target?

A second criticism is that 30×30 is anti-development. The world’s surging population needs ever more space and food; surely setting aside so much space for nature at best is an unnecessary brake on development, and at worst will engender more poverty and food insecurity? But to take this view is fundamentally to misunderstand what nature does for us. Everything in human life ultimately depends on healthy, thriving nature, because it is biodiverse life that makes the planet habitable for us. Breathable air, clean water and nutritious food all depend on a functioning environment. It would be a foolish person who seeing that their life and prosperity depended on something decided to keep only 10 per cent of it.

The roots of our failure to appreciate nature’s importance to us are embedded within our evolutionary heritage. Throughout most of human history, populations were too small and sparsely distributed to have anything more than local influences on the environment. But during the last 100 years or so, and especially the last 30, that has all changed. Our influence is now felt everywhere, even in the farthest reaches of the oceans and the deepest abysses. We are eating away at the planetary life support system. We have to rebalance our relationship with the natural world for there to be a bright future for generations to come.

A third criticism of 30×30 is that it will impinge on human rights. A quarter of the world’s land area and large stretches of coast are owned or managed by indigenous peoples, and 30×30, according to indigenous rights groups such as Survival International, is nothing more than the latest episode in a long history of land grabs and rights abuses. It is certainly true that the creation of many protected areas has displaced indigenous peoples. Yellowstone National Park in the United States is an infamous example: on its creation in 1872, several native American nations were violently driven out of the area.

Land grabs are still happening. Just this year thousands of Maasai have been driven off their lands in the Serengeti to make way for a new reserve for safaris and trophy hunting. At the same time indigenous peoples and their human and legal rights are imperilled by the encroachment into their lands and seas of agriculture, logging, industrial fishing and mining.

Achieving protection of 30 per cent of land and sea does not need to come at further cost to indigenous and local peoples. They tread more lightly upon the planet and understand nature better than do city dwellers; so enlisting their help in managing and protecting nature could help safeguard them and their cultures and traditions.

The hole in our plans for the planet

I hope that the CBD will agree to 30×30. Even if it doesn’t, the target has already been adopted individually by a ‘high ambition’ coalition of over 100 nations. More will follow. The ocean represents a high priority for greater protection, first because its protection lags behind that of land, and second because the ocean is the beating heart of the planet. We may be used to thinking of the world as an ocean planet – seven tenths sea and three tenths land; we need to realise that in reality it is much brinier than that. When you take depth into account, 97 per cent of the volume of living space on Earth is ocean.

Unfinished business

Lands End, Cornwall. The UK has built a network of Marine Protected Areas in the last decade that is impressive in its extent – 372 protected areas covering 38 per cent of UK seas – but real protection is currently very limited. The government has announced five new highly protected marine areas, which will have greater protection, but they only cover half a per cent of English waters. Photo: Callum Roberts

To avoid catastrophic, runaway climate change we need a relentless focus on reinventing our relationship with the environment by 2030. The ocean must be at the centre of this effort. But to increase protection of the whole ocean, we need to conclude the unfinished business derailed by Covid. CBD applies only to sovereign territories, not to the high seas. As those international waters cover 43 per cent of the Earth’s surface, there is a near half-planet-sized hole in our plans.

To fill that hole, the United Nations has since 2018 been negotiating a high seas treaty to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions. The treaty was due to be agreed in 2020, but the last meeting was cancelled owing to the pandemic. Negotiations resumed this year, but we are still some way from agreement. Major sticking points include: how countries should share benefits from the high seas; who should enforce the rules; and how. Meanwhile, the high seas remain an oceanic wild west where fish are overexploited, human rights are abused, and nations play geopolitics.

Political targets don’t mean much if we keep missing them. But they do provide us with a shared sense of purpose and direction, and motivate collective action. We haven’t yet protected 10 per cent of the ocean, but the target has helped the establishment of a wave of protected areas that could see us achieve 30 per cent by 2030 if we build on the momentum. At the CoP15 meeting in Canada the focus will very much be on protected areas, but we must not forget that protecting 30 per cent is not enough without managing the other 70 per cent far better than we do now. Tackling the crises of biodiversity loss and climate change requires a complete reset of human relations with nature.

Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Blue Marine Foundation and the Maldives Coral Institute, and scientific advisor to the BBC’s Blue Planet II series.