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Protecting half: a plan to save life on Earth

Recently, a number of the world’s leading scientists, indigenous leaders, and advocates have been engaged in something bold: asking exactly what is required to stop the mass extinction of life on Earth and save a living planet. And the answer, after numerous reviews of the evidence for what it would take to achieve comprehensive biodiversity conservation, has become clear: fully protect half the Earth (or more) in an interconnected way. The vision is bold because it far surpasses globally agreed upon targets for establishing nature reserves (which today are at 17%) and because rather than asking for what appears possible, it is asking for what is needed. In several advocacy communities, this goal has been coined “Nature Needs Half” (NNH) — a concept that is meant to be inclusive of people in its definition of nature as well as in its definition of protection. NNH acknowledges that nature can be conserved not only in government-run protected areas, but also on private lands and indigenous reserves.

Protecting half offers a grand vision—and endgame—under which all conservation efforts could rally. Such a grand plan is desperately needed. Many vertebrate species have vanished over the past five decades or have become critically endangered and the rate of extinction is accelerating. If habitat conversion continues unabated, key ecosystems could collapse, disrupting the biosphere upon which we all—humans and wildlife—depend. We need a grand solution, and until recently nobody had been bold enough to offer up what it would take to conserve the wealth of diversity on Earth.

With the vision in place—protect at least half the Earth in an interconnected way—we felt that two basic questions must be addressed:

1) Is the aspirational goal of protecting half of nature in the terrestrial realm possible?

2) Which half should be protected, and how much of it has already been conserved?

We tackled answering these two questions recently, and addressed just how feasible this grand vision of protecting half the Earth may be.

Hawaii waterfall by kuszapro. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

After revising a map of the world’s 846 ecoregions, we determined how much habitat remains and how much is protected in each of these places. 98 ecoregions (12%) already have at least half of the land areas protected for the conservation of nature. Another 313 ecoregions fall short of half-protected but have sufficient unaltered habitat remaining to protect the target.

Further, our results were surprisingly positive for many of the world’s most species-rich regions in the subtropical and tropical forests. Covering only 14% of the Earth’s surface, this biome supports more than half of life on Earth and 140 of the ecoregions in this biome are either already half-protected or have sufficient habitat to do so.

In contrast, the situation is dire for a quarter of the world’s ecoregions, where an average of only 4% natural habitat remains. In these places, which include much of Madagascar, the Southeastern United States, and the mixed forests of China, we need to be focused on saving the last remnants in the short term and then undergoing a massive restoration over the next 30 years.

At the current rate, the amount of land under formal protection increases by about 4% per decade. If the rate of increase doubled to achieve 8 or 10% per decade, the goal, supported by a Global Deal for Nature, could be within reach. This should be feasible if we can help indigenous groups and private landowners in key areas to conserve their lands—and ultimately include these areas in the global protected area system.

While Nature Needs Half is a top down idea, it will only be achieved through bottom-up efforts, as conservation efforts will happen at local and community levels as people call on their leaders to conserve more land. Conservation should be achieved through careful planning while respecting rights, improving livelihoods, and sharing decision-making. As such, we are building a network that will support implementation of the grand vision through communications, mapping, and technical solutions, and by providing financial resources to places that are striving to protect half. The vision is aspirational, but with the right focus and dedication of resources, it is also feasible. Protecting half would pay incredible dividends for not just the other ten million life forms on planet Earth, but for future generations of people as well.

Photo by Harvey Locke on behalf of Nature Needs Half. Used with permission.

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