Future of the Environment

It's now or never for saving the environment, says explorer

environment climate change nature ecosystem interdependence species diversity extinction financial economic services materials food medicine agriculture waste pollution oceans land

As ecosystems unravel, the quality of life for all species, including humans, will diminish. Image: Unsplash/Dustan Woodhouse

Enric Sala
Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society, Member of Friends of Ocean Action and Champions for Nature
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Future of the Environment

  • Nature provides $125 trillion per year worth of ecosystem services to humans, which we cannot afford to lose, writes Enric Sala, National Geographic's explorer-in-residence.
  • By 2030, we must protect twice as much land and four times as much ocean just to secure essential ecosystems and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

The world is at a crossroads. The future of life on our planet – and thus our own – is in jeopardy. Humanity has overreached in its pursuit of affluence. Research shows that we have altered more than 75% of the world’s ice-free land. Over half of the planet’s habitable surface is now used to produce food, with wildlands constituting less than 25% of Earth. The ocean has fared no better. In the last hundred years, 90% of large fish have been removed from the sea, with 63% of stocks overfished.

Making matters worse, greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from industry, agriculture, and deforestation have increased significantly since 1970. With human-driven global warming accelerating, we can no longer ignore the loss of natural areas or the threat of climate change.

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We already know that if land conversion and GHG emissions are not reduced by 2030, it will be impossible to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as envisioned in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Moreover, even warming of 1.5°C would pose a grave threat to the planet’s biology, accelerating a sixth mass extinction that is already underway. As ecosystems unravel, the quality of life for all species, including humans, will diminish.

When ecosystems are compromised, the natural goods that they provide – clean air and water, crop pollination, and storm protection – inevitably will decline. Studies show that declining access to clean water and intensifying storms and droughts related to climate change could displace 100 million people just in the next 30 years.

Humans will not be the only ones to suffer in a warming world. After all, we share the planet with around nine million species of plants and animals. As ecosystems falter, species large and small will come increasingly under strain, and will need to adapt or perish. Many will go extinct, whereupon it will take millions of years for Earth to recover its breadth and depth of biodiversity. With the planet fundamentally and irreversibly changed, the implications for humanity itself would be immediate and far-reaching.

To prevent such a scenario, we first must remember that the 2015 Paris climate accord was always a half-deal: it addresses the causes of global warming, but not the threat to natural systems upon which all life depends. Today, only 15% of land and 7% of our oceans are protected. Yet studies show that by 2030, we must protect twice as much land and four times as much ocean just to secure essential ecosystems and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Protecting natural areas, then, is the missing link to maintaining prosperity in a warming world.

The world’s 846 terrestrial ecoregions and depiction of 30% protection by the 2030 milestone.
By 2030, we must protect twice as much land and four times as much ocean as we currently are to maintain ecosystems. Image: Science Advances

In anticipation of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Kunming, China, later this year, scientists and other stakeholders have developed the Global Deal for Nature. As a time-bound, science-driven plan to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, the Global Deal is a stepping stone to conserving 50% of the Earth in a natural state by 2050. In the next decade, we need to achieve more in terms of conservation than we have accomplished over the past century. Reaching this goal requires a rapid and collective acceleration of conservation efforts worldwide.

Just as important as the amount of protected land and water is the diversity and health of natural areas. Land-based protections must safeguard the ecosystems required to support threatened species, mitigate climate change, and safeguard biodiversity. And in the ocean, avoiding species collapse and maintaining sustainable fisheries requires comprehensive protections for critical habitats, threatened species, and migratory corridors.

Although the task is daunting, protecting 30% of land and water by 2030 is eminently achievable. Skeptics will argue that we need to use the land and oceans to feed the projected ten billion people who will share the planet by 2050, and that the proposed protections are too expensive or challenging. But research already shows that the 30% goal is attainable using existing technologies within existing consumption patterns, provided that there are shifts in policy, production, and expenditures by governments and businesses.

Moreover, the demand for food to sustain our growing population can be met with our current agricultural lands, simply by reducing food waste. But we also need to restore near-shore artisanal fisheries, and develop regenerative agriculture that provides local and healthier food while rebuilding the soil and absorbing much of the carbon pollution we emit into the atmosphere. If we redirect a portion of the government funding that subsidizes unsustainable fishing and agricultural practices each year, we can protect the natural areas that provide $125 trillion per year worth of “ecosystem services” to humans. By identifying and mitigating nature-based risks to businesses, we can create a sustainable economy that benefits both humanity and the natural world.

We have one chance to get this right. Protecting a much larger share of the natural world is an ambitious goal. But it is one that will secure a vibrant future for humanity and all the species with which we share this planet. The Global Deal for Nature, together with the Paris agreement, can save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. Our very future depends on rising to the challenge.

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