The New ‘Con’ in Conservation: Why the Proposed Voluntary, Paris Agreement-Style, ‘30×30’ Target for Protected Areas Won’t Save the World’s Biodiversity

Baka children help their mothers collect nuts. © Selcen Kucukustel/Atlas

The idea of increasing to 30% the portion of Earth’s lands and seas designated as protected areas by 2030 (‘30×30’) has become a rallying cry for conservationists. It is one of the proposed targets in a new global agreement on biodiversity. Questions about exactly how such a target could be implemented – and indeed whether it would even help save the planet’s biodiversity – have remained largely unanswered.  Until now, that is, and the recent responses are not at all reassuring.

Proposals to protect a third of the Earth for wildlife (or even ‘half Earth’, as suggested by some extremist conservationists) have been around for decades, but the idea has only been taken up as a serious proposition over the last couple of years. A target of 30% by 2030 has been included in a new draft action plan for 2020 to 2030 under the global Convention on Biological Diversity. A coalition of 60 governments led by France and Costa Rica is lobbying heavily for the idea.

During the World Conservation Congress just finished in Marseille, I asked the French government’s co-coordinator of this so-called ‘High Ambition Coalition’ how they foresaw the target working in practice. Key issues are not clear. Would each country have to designate 30% of its territory for conservation, or would it be a global target and, if so, how would it be determined which countries protected what, bearing in mind that biodiversity is very unevenly distributed around the planet?

Her answer surprised me: “It’s very much a global target. Countries would make voluntary commitments to fulfilling it”. She confirmed that this would thus be similar in nature to the Paris Agreement on climate. Signed in 2015, that accord set a broad global target of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it left all countries to make their own voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’ to reducing carbon emissions.

Many suspected at the time that a purely voluntary agreement on climate would fall short of stimulating the necessary action. In fact, six years on, national climate commitments and policies leave us on track for a catastrophic global temperature rise of between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker[1].

Taking the same approach to protecting the planet’s biodiversity would likely be even less successful. Governments fiercely guard their sovereignty over the land and resources that shape their stock of biodiversity. Land is finite, and its use and designation often highly politically charged. Designating large areas for conservation has in the past often involved evicting many people from their homelands. As land becomes scarcer, the likelihood of especially poor countries (where most biodiversity is found) being willing to set aside vast areas will decline.

And there is also the almost insurmountable challenge of voluntarily protecting 30% of the seas, which would inevitably require agreement over parts of the High Seas, for which there is no international mechanism at all.

A ‘Paris-style’ approach to conservation also misses some fundamental differences between climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection. National commitments to reduce carbon emissions broadly combine to a global effort because carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the same wherever it is emitted.  But protected areas spread across the globe according to government ‘willingness’ do not necessarily have an additive or cumulative effect. Multiple countries could all designate large areas to protect the same limited number of species (as has already happened across much of Africa). Some larger countries could protect very large areas which are of limited value in biodiversity terms, but make up a significant part of a global 30% target. As an estimated 70% of species globally are found in only 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries, how could it be ensured that the ‘voluntary commitments’ mostly came from these countries?

Another key problem is that setting aside National Parks and wildlife reserves does not necessarily address the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss – the expansion of large-scale agriculture, excessive fishing, badly planned and poorly regulated mining, logging and plantations, gross over-consumption in the rich world and, of course, increasingly climate change.

It is notable that, of the 20 targets in the previous global action plan on biodiversity, covering 2010-2020, the only one achieved was to increase to 17% the area of Earth designated as protected. Yet biodiversity is said by the conservation industry itself to have declined ever faster during the same period. A 2019 study, looking at more than 12,000 protected areas across 152 countries, found that, with some individual exceptions, such conservation reserves have done nothing over the last 15 years to reduce human pressure on wildlife. Indeed, inside many, the pressure had worsened compared to unprotected areas[2].

Further, the question inevitably arises as to what happens to the 70% of Earth outside of protected areas. Is this simply abandoned to rapacious corporations and developers? Critics also add that any voluntary approach to halting biodiversity loss undermines the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the 1992 pact which places legal obligations on countries to conserve nature’s bounty.

Protecting the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots would require very specific measures in specific countries. But during recent discussions on the 30% proposal amongst the 180 or so member countries of the CBD, some of the most biodiverse countries raised concerns about the idea, or their ability to implement it.  Some questioned whether it would do much to halt biodiversity loss. Others asked whether rich countries would be willing to foot the bill for low income countries to set aside large parts of their national territory for wildlife.

During last week’s Marseille Congress, I asked Costa Rica’s Minister for Environment, Andrea Meza Murillo, to explain how the 30×30 target would address some of these fundamental problems. Her answers were revealing. She said that the actual figure was not so important, but that a simple number was needed to get the attention of politicians, and of the private sector.  She added that we should really be talking about 30x30x30, the additional ‘x30’ being an aim to soak up some 30% of the rich world’s carbon pollution with so called ‘nature-based solutions’ by 2030. This controversial idea would see around 30% of global climate funding redirected to conservation organisations for tree planting and restoring forests and peat bogs and other such schemes.

In other words, this is really all about political signaling and money, rather than a serious attempt to protect the planet’s wildlife. Nature-based solutions to climate change have been widely criticized and dismissed by scientists as ineffective, unreliable, and a dangerous distraction from reducing fossil fuels.

Big international conservation groups should clearly be up in arms about the 30×30 target, but they’re not. In fact, groups like WWF and Conservation International are very much in favour of it. It’s possible that no one in these major multinational corporations is really aware of what countries like France and Costa Rica have in mind. Or perhaps for them the most important thing about the target is simply that it would give a green flag to a huge increase in funding for protected areas – that is, to the core income stream for the conservation industry – regardless of how effective such a strategy would be.

The target’s proponents repeatedly say that the science demands 30% of Earth as protected areas as a minimum. But there is a very real danger that we could end up in 2030 with either nothing like 30% of Earth being protected or, even worse, with a lot more protected areas that have displaced hundreds of millions of people from their land, but done little or nothing to prevent biodiversity loss, and with the very fabric of life still rapidly disappearing.

Much better would be for all countries to be required under the new biodiversity agreement to identify what is really causing the loss of their biodiversity and then draw up rapid action plans to address that. Special attention needs to be given to strengthening the legal rights of Indigenous people, whose lands are believed to contain 80% of all Earth’s biodiversity but which largely remain legally unrecognised. Along with the many other local communities protecting wildlife, they should be front and centre of the solution – rather than an arbitrary and voluntary protected areas’ target of the kind which has already failed.





Simon Counsell is a researcher and writer on conservation, human rights, and ‘nature-based’ climate solutions. He is also a consultant for Survival International.

This article was originally published in CounterPunch, September 30, 2021.