For thousands of years, the natural world has allowed human societies to flourish by providing food, water, and materials for shelter and medicine. But the environments that supply these resources — bodies of water, fertile landscapes, tropical forests — are being depleted at an ever-accelerating pace.

The planet’s ecosystems can tolerate only so much extraction on an annual basis; beyond these limits, they can’t replenish and rebound to their normal levels. In 2021, countries exceeded the planetary limit on July 29, meaning 5 full months of natural resource extraction will take place in environments that have already been functionally exhausted.

Because this happens year after year, once-mighty rivers are slowing to a trickle, soil-rich grasslands are turning to desert, and the tight webs-of-life animating forests are beginning to unravel

The global decline of biodiversity is the twin crisis of climate change; they’re both caused by humanity’s exploitative economic systems, they reinforce one another, and they demand the same sense of urgency from world leaders.

Yet the climate crisis seems to gain far more attention, even if that attention fails to translate into policy action. That’s why countries are boldly calling for the protection of 30% of land and marine environments by 2030 and the United Nations has designated the next 10 years “The Decade on Restoration” to halt ecosystem degradation. 

The 30x30 goal is particularly urgent because it’s easier to protect an environment from destruction than it is to regenerate an environment that’s already been degraded. 

But is the 30x30 goal even possible? What will it take to achieve this goal? And what do we risk if we fall short?

3 Things to Know About the 30x30 Goal 

  • An estimated 16.44% of land worldwide is currently protected, along with 7.74% of the ocean, according to the United Nations.
  • Roughly three quarters of all land environments and two-thirds of the ocean have been heavily degraded by human activities, according to Nature America
  • The 30% conservation goal was chosen by scientists because it’s a level that gives the planet a chance to recover and could protect millions of species from extinction. 

How Did the 30x30 Goal Come About?

A burned area of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Prainha, Para state, Brazil in November 2019.
A burned area of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Prainha, Para state, Brazil in November 2019.
Image: Leo Correa/AP

Environmental warning signs had been flashing for decades when countries agreed in 2010 to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets

These targets were intended to reverse environmental decline by protecting endangered species, shielding various land and ocean ecosystems from exploitation, and modifying economic sectors to be more sustainable. 

But a decade later, not a single target has been reached, according to a report by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), largely because countries have failed to fund conservation efforts. They also lacked the capacity to track and report environmental data, although this deficit has improved in recent years.

“Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the UNCBD, in a statement for the report. “And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own wellbeing, security, and prosperity.” 

Now a coalition of 60 countries led by Costa Rica, France, and the United Kingdom are proposing the 30x30 target, which will be introduced during the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity later this year.

The proposal calls on countries to double the current amount of land conservation and quadruple marine conservation. It also calls on countries to prioritize species facing extinction and protect natural ecosystem services such as freshwater availability.

Another major component of the proposal involves elevating Indigenous forms of conservation. Indigenous communities account for 5% of the global population, yet protect around 80% of biodiversity. Empowering Indigenous leaders with funding and legal protections will go a long way toward making the 30x30 goal possible. 

Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous group in the Philippines, explained in an interview with Conservation International the reciprocity that undergirds Indigenous relationships to the natural world. 

“In many cases, the Western relationship with nature is more transactional, whereas the relationship of Indigenous peoples to their territories is more interdependent,” she said. “When Indigenous peoples derive something from nature, such as food, water or medicine, we also give something back by sustainably managing the land. In fact, Indigenous-managed lands show less species decline and pollution, and more well-managed natural resources.”

The 30x30 proposal has taken on increasing urgency as climate change disrupts the stability of land and marine ecosystems alike. Over the past few months, unprecedented forest fires, land and marine heat waves, and droughts have shown that rising global temperatures will render large swaths of the planet uninhabitable.  

With that prospect looming, the effort to protect 30% of the planet seems like the bare minimum that needs to be done.

What Can Countries Do to Achieve 30x30?

A white-tipped reef shark swims between the coral in Fiji.
A white-tipped reef shark swims between the coral in Fiji.
Image: © Photo by Edgardo Ochoa/Conservation International

Countries can protect 30% of their land and marine spaces through legislation. By consulting scientists and Indigenous groups, ecologically important and sensitive areas can be identified and then these areas can receive legal designations to restrict human interference. 

Within the decade, the 30% goal can be reached through a variety of conservation options available to governments. 

The most stringent form of conservation involves restricting all but the most gentle of human activities in an area (with special exemptions carved out for Indigenous and other groups engaging in sustainable actions). For example, farming and commercial activities may be blocked in a protected land area, or fishing and marine shipping may be prohibited in a particular coastal area.

These “protected area” designations are ideal for speeding up ecosystem recovery and preventing species loss, but there are other, less prohibitive options that governments have adopted as part of their conservation goals.

Other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) recognize areas that are already meeting conservation targets yet have no special designation. By legally recognizing them, governments can allow existing activities to persist as long as they do not interfere with conservation goals. In this way, ecologically sound economies can be preserved and emulated.

Governments can also work with neighboring countries to protect sensitive areas that cross national borders. This sort of collaborative approach will be key to protecting important land and marine resources. 

But simply designating a protected area or OECM is not enough. Countries then have to dedicate ongoing funding for the effective management and protection of spaces. 

What Stands in the Way of This Goal?

A coal miner Scott Tiller walks through the morning fog before going underground in a mine less than 40-inches high in Welch, W.Va. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards. Many environmental groups and Democrats fear a potential rollback of the Obama administration’s policies on climate change and renewable energy.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman

Whether or not 30% of the planet will be protected by 2030 ultimately comes down to money. Indigenous communities, conservationists, and scientists know how to protect land and marine ecosystems. They just don’t have the financing needed to implement their knowledge.

In fact, funding for global conservation is currently hundreds of billions of dollars short of where it needs to be to even achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Since the 30x30 goal is more ambitious, even more financing will need to be unlocked. 

At the same time, the industries responsible for the destruction of the planet have enormous financial backing and political support. Simply shifting the $548 billion in annual subsidies that are given to fossil fuels by G20 governments would cover the majority of the $700 billion in yearly spending needed to fully fund global conservation goals. 

But countries must go further, according to scientists. It wouldn’t be enough to simply fund conservation efforts; the industries destroying and polluting the planet have to be phased out or transformed. After all, many companies regularly pollute and destroy areas that are designated for conservation protection.

The list of offending economic sectors is long, encompassing everything from consumer goods and technology manufacturing to marine activities like fishing to urban development and land conversion.

But two industries in particular need to be immediately transformed. 

The global energy industry has plans to build oil rigs, pipelines, and mining operations in highly sensitive ecological areas. Not only can these plans not go through, but the industry’s existing infrastructure has to be entirely repurposed. Fossil fuel development is not compatible with conservation goals.

Industrial agriculture, the primary driver of deforestation and soil degradation worldwide, needs to be replaced with community-driven systems of regenerative agriculture that focus on soil health and work in harmony with local ecosystems rather than against them. 

Taking on these sectors will be extraordinarily challenging since companies within them provide jobs, generate tremendous wealth, act in secrecy, and often flout the law. 

Environmentally harmful companies often harass, bully, and hunt down and kill community organizers working to protect local ecosystems. This extreme power imbalance reveals the warped priorities of countries worldwide — not only is conservation underfunded, but the very stewards of the environment are being intimidated and murdered with impunity. 

If these trends continue, the writing is on the wall — 95% of all land environments will be degraded by 2050

What Countries Are Leading the Way?

The Yale Center for Environmental Protection releases a report each year that ranks countries according to how well they protect the environment by looking at dozens of data points for water quality, biodiversity health, greenhouse gas emissions, and more.

European countries dominated the latest addition of the report, accounting for 18 of the top 22 spots. Denmark received the highest score for prioritizing environmental integrity across all facets of society.

Another report by Conservation Biology found that the countries with the most biodiversity dedicate the least to conservation, largely due to a lack of resources.

Ranking countries by their environmental stewardship can give the false impression that each country exists in a vacuum. But that’s not how the planet works. Biodiversity in one region affects biodiversity in another, just like climate change in one area has ripple effects felt elsewhere. 

The biodiversity and climate crisis are global in scale and they require global solutions. 

This means that protecting biodiversity, just like fighting climate change, cannot be done in isolation. Countries have to fund a collective 30x30 goal, just like they have to fund climate adaptation and mitigation measures worldwide. Already, high-income countries have agreed to spend $100 billion annually on climate measures in low-income countries. The same sort of pledge — scaled to the scope of the crisis — needs to be made for biodiversity. 

This is what organizers and activists mean when they talk about environmental justice — ensuring that all humans and species can live comfortably on the planet by equitably sharing resources. Achieving this sort of future requires a just transition beyond the current economy toward one oriented around mutual flourishing. 

Protecting 30% of the planet is a good start. But the final goal should be 100% of wildlife.

What Can You Do?

You can become a champion for the planet by learning about biodiversity, joining organizations that protect local ecosystems, and calling on political leaders to invest in conservation and restoration.  You can also take action to defend the planet here.

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.


Defend the Planet

The World Must Protect 30% of Land and Oceans by 2030. Is It Possible?

By Joe McCarthy