Nature needs only half

A ground-breaking new study, co-authored by almost 50 scientists, including Rainforest Alliance Chief Program Officer Nigel Sizer, charts an ambitious yet achievable plan to halt mass extinction through a strategy of protecting half the Earth by 2050. The plan, linked to a policy initiative called the Global Deal for Nature (GDN), is being proposed as a companion pact to the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Climate change and the Earth’s impending mass extinction are inextricably entwined—we can’t address one without addressing the other,” Sizer says. “We need a Paris-like agreement on biodiversity conservation—and the plan put forth here is concrete, actionable, and science-based.”

The study that underpins the policy initiative, “An Ecoregion-Based Approach to Protecting Half the Terrestrial Realm,” makes use of a new map of the world’s 846 ecoregions. Key findings are follows:

  • 98 ecoregions (12 percent) already exceed half protected
  • 313 ecoregions (37 percent) fall short of half protected but could reach that target with expansion of protected areas
  • 228 ecoregions (27 percent) could recover, with sustained restoration efforts, to achieve half protected
  • 207 ecoregions (24 percent) are in peril, with an average of only 4 percent of habitat remaining.
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The new ecoregions map has allowed scientists to identify which areas need to be set aside for continued or expanded protection in order to stop what journalist Elizabeth Kolbert famously wrote about in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction. Based on recent advances in biogeography (the science of the distribution of plants and animals), the updated ecoregions map can then be used to chart progress in achieving the goals of a Global Deal for Nature. The original ecoregions map, introduced in 2001 by some of the same team that created this updated version, has been used widely and successfully by ecologists to analyze the impacts of climate change on nature as well as the distribution of wildlife.

The study, which appeared in BioScience (a highly respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences), shows that for the majority of the world’s ecoregions, achieving “half-protected” status in the next 30 years would be possible with sufficient financing and political momentum.

“The cost of protecting half the Earth is relatively low: it amounts to less than what Americans spend on their pets annually ($70 billion in 2017).”

Scientist Eric Dinerstein, lead author of the study (and lead creator of the maps), says, “Scientists agree that we can enhance global ecosystem recovery by designating half of Earth’s land and seas as connected networks of protected areas.” He adds that a Global Deal for Nature also helps preserve the rights of indigenous communities, “who are stewards of much of the world’s biodiversity.” The Rainforest Alliance has long worked to develop sustainable livelihoods in some of the world’s most ecologically precious landscapes, training foresters and farmers in methods that increase their incomes without harming the health of the land or the people who live on it.

From a financial point of view, Dinerstein points out, the cost of protecting half the Earth is relatively low: it amounts to less than what Americans spend on their pets annually ($70 billion in 2017).

The Rainforest Alliance’s Sizer agrees that implementing the plan is more a matter of mustering political will than money. “It seems ambitious, but it can be done. It will require many of us, from indigenous communities to governments, business, and conservationists—to come together and act forcefully, with determination and heart.” He adds: “If we succeed, we will prevent the sixth great extinction and endow our children with a healthy, beautiful, and productive planet.”

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