News from a Changing Planet – #21

By Tatiana Schlossberg

Just when you thought we were done with COP, here comes another one! 

Next week, the international community will come together again, this time in Montreal, for the 15th meeting of the United Nations Conference of Parties on Biological Diversity (CBD), whose purpose is to protect plant and animal species, and ensure the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources.

This COP will probably get a lot less attention than COP 27, which wrapped up earlier this month in Egypt – no heads of state are planning to attend except for Prime Minister Trudeau, and the U.S. isn’t a member of this conference, because it never ratified the CBD treaty – but it is as important.

Climate change and the biodiversity crisis are inextricable: climate change is one of the primary threats to biodiversity, and also exacerbates other pressures, like habitat fragmentation and industrialization, because changing conditions make it more difficult for species to recover. 

It’s easy to focus on the endangerment and extinction of charismatic megafauna (<– one of my personal favorite terms of all time – who among us could resist being thusly classified?!), but the scale of the biodiversity crisis is immense and pervasive. We have lost about 10 percent of global insect species every decade for the last 4 decades. More than 200 known species of frogs have gone extinct in the last 50 years

The Panamanian Golden Frog, believed to be extinct in the wild since 2007. Credit: Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons

At this COP, the negotiators will discuss the “30×30” campaign, which was proposed in a 2019 article in Science Advances and urges the global community to provide formal protection to 30 percent of all land and the oceans by 2030, and set aside an additional 20 percent as “climate stabilization areas,” both to ease extinction and endangerment pressures, and to prevent warming above 1.5ºC. 

(As an aside, I think most news coverage of warming targets does not really explain what 1.5ºC of warming means. Do you find this framework confusing, and would you like me to explain it in a future edition? Let me know.)

President Biden committed the United States to protecting at least 30 percent of its lands and coastal waters by 2030 in an executive action last year. The European Commission has produced a similar strategy, and more than 110 countries have expressed their support for the plan. However, targets set at previous COPs in 2002 and 2010 were missed, and conservation efforts are dramatically underfunded, according to experts. Conservation spending would need to triple this decade to $350 billion to protect nature on land alone, according to a UN report.  

There have been other criticisms of the 30×30 plan. The main concern is that it could result in large-scale evictions of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, which would be a major injustice. Secondarily, it would be short-sighted, since Indigenous people are the best stewards of their lands, both for themselves and in terms of carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation. Indigenous activists and experts should have a seat at the table for any negotiations, at COP and in their home countries. 

(It’s also important to note that conservation or preservation will not fully “restore” an ecosystem or area to whatever ideal we are imagining, largely because there is nowhere on earth that is unaffected by human activity, a result of anthropogenic climate change. A return to pre-industrial conditions is not possible, given the ways in which we have already transformed the planet. But it’s also because we have a flawed idea of what wilderness/wildness is. In the U.S., this often means that we imagine “wilderness” to be the state of nature in the pre-contact/precolonial era, but Indigenous communities changed the landscapes they lived too – take fire management as one example. A great book that explores the issue of conservation and preservation in our time is “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World ” by Emma Marris.)

Protecting the oceans usually comes second to protecting land, in part because it’s not as easy to see what ocean protections do, and we are more accustomed to the idea of national or state parks and nature preserves on land. But protecting the ocean is crucial for a lot of reasons. 

Many of you wrote in to say that you wanted to hear more about oceans and Doug McCauley and his team at University of California Santa Barbara and the Benioff Ocean Science Lab specifically. Coincidentally (or not 😉 ), they spend a lot of time advocating for marine protected areas.

MPAs, as they are known, typically fall in coastal waters or within a country’s ocean territory (also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which is usually defined as the area within 200 nautical miles from shore). 

But Doug is also working to get the international community to protect parts of the high seas, which are international waters (or “areas beyond national jurisdiction”) and also “the common heritage of mankind.” However, these parts of the ocean are unregulated and overexploited. A recent study showed that many ships turn off their vessel monitoring devices (which help prevent illegal fishing) when they are in international waters. These are the areas of the ocean likely to be targeted by seabed mining or other forms of industrialization, at great cost to biodiversity. Less than 1 percent of the high seas is currently protected. In the report, he and his colleagues suggested 10 ocean areas that are especially worthy of protection, which you can see in the map below. 

If you don’t know much about the high seas, it’s hard to imagine what they’re like. They’re remote, so scientists haven’t been able to study them as much as other areas, but they estimate that they represent 95 percent of the habitable space on earth (all that volume!), and could be home to millions of unknown species. They are migratory highways for whales, turtles, fish, birds, sharks. They’re home to millions of species of phytoplankton which produce almost half of the earth’s oxygen supply. They are crucial to our continued existence on this planet, both for the air we breathe and for sequestering much of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere. 

And MPAs do actually work, particularly when it comes to biodiversity preservation. A recent study of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine protected area (off the coast of Hawaii), demonstrated the massive spillover benefits of marine protection. Some have been skeptical of the capacity of MPAs to conserve migratory ocean species, but this study showed that “the protections afforded to two migratory species, bigeye and yellowfin tuna, led to spillover effects previously only seen for resident fish populations.

I mean, would you look at that! Reef at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA

A map of the boundaries of PMNM. Credit: NOAA.

There has been a debate in the scientific community about the effectiveness of MPAs for biodiversity preservation, and whether fisheries management might be a better tool. Doug and his colleagues don’t doubt the need for fisheries management; they just think we need both. 

In an interview for my story, Doug told me, “If we meet the climate challenge but don’t also fix the great biodiversity extinction challenge, then I don’t want to be 80 and finally have the opportunity to do the biodiversity focal follows” (aka detailed ecological behavioral studies) “and not be able to,” he said.

COP15 will get less attention than COP27, and the oceans will probably get less attention than land, but ocean conservation is extremely important for climate regulation, resilience, and biodiversity preservation, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, and many more. 

Take a deep breath, and thank a phytoplankton for the ability to do so. 

Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you’d like to read or see more of, and any questions or comments you might have.


News From a Changing Planet by Tatiana Schlossberg111 Fifth Avenue, 12th Floor New York, NY 10003 USA