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UN plan would protect 30% of oceans and land to stem extinctions

A fisherman in a canoe in Ghana

Muntaka Chasant/Shutterstock

Nearly a third of the world’s oceans and land should be protected by 2030 to stem extinctions and ensure humanity lives in harmony with nature. That is the suggestion from 195 countries in a proposed United Nations plan to tackle the global destruction of nature.

The measure is one of 21 targets in the first draft of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Others include reforming planning systems to protect species, ending farming subsidies that are driving wildlife losses, and boosting conservation funding by at least $200 billion a year. Overall funding today is about $100 billion a year.

“Despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide and this decline is projected to continue or worsen under business-as-usual scenarios,” says the draft, which negotiators will need to finalise in time for a major UN biodiversity summit in October.

The plan, roughly the nature equivalent of the Paris Agreement on climate change, ultimately aims to halt or reverse extinction rates. The transformation of forests and other habits into farmland and cities is currently driving a loss of species so great that scientists consider the world to be in the middle of a sixth mass extinction.

The new international targets are the first that governments will set for beyond 2020. However, none of the world’s previous biodiversity goals were met by a 2020 deadline.

One of the key new targets is to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, for example as national parks, up from 16.64 per cent of land and 7.74 per cent of oceans today. “It’s important, an essential part of the picture, that we increase the area,” says David Cooper of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He adds the quality and location of the areas will be vital too.

Ending the discharge of plastic waste into the environment is another target, along with countering the release of 10 billion tonnes a year of the world’s annual 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning using natural solutions, which could include tree-planting and restoration of peatland.

“I think it indicates an ambition that is pretty big. This plan is a first step,” says Cooper.

Others see a mixed picture. Neville Ash at the UN Environment Programme says the draft is “fairly comprehensive” on its ultimate aims, but many of the 21 targets will need to be met much earlier than 2030. He was disappointed the plan doesn’t address cutting CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. While climate change is a small cause of biodiversity loss compared with land use change today, its impact is growing and projected to get worse.

“The draft falls disappointingly short of what’s needed. As it stands, we risk failing to deliver the transformational change needed to halt, let alone reverse, catastrophic nature loss by 2030,” says Mike Barrett at WWF UK. The charity wants the plan to include a goal of reducing the global footprint of everything humans produce and consume.

Jessica Dempsey at the University of British Columbia, Canada, says for the framework to succeed where past efforts have failed, “governments will have to deal with the structural inequalities in the economic system”. She adds: “There should be far more emphasis on the fact that it was the rich countries who are responsible for and have benefited most from the developments that drive biodiversity loss.”

The draft GBF, produced after weeks of virtual meetings, will almost certainly change between now and October. Line-by-line negotiations by government officials are due to begin on 23 August.

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