Biodiversity is a concept that’s commonly referenced, yet regularly misunderstood. The complex term not only refers to the mind-boggling variety of life on Earth, but to how everything from genes to entire ecosystems like coral reefs interact to make the planet habitable. The bad news: clear and compelling science (as summed up in a recent, landmark United Nations report) shows that biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide at a faster rate than at any time in human history.
That’s obviously devastating for plants, animals, forests, oceans, and everything else in nature—including us.
“If biodiversity disappears, so do people,” says Dr. Stephen Woodley, field ecologist and biodiversity expert with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the state of the natural world and the measures needed to protect it. “We are part of nature and we do not exist without it… We need biodiversity for every reason we could possibly think of—for our own survival, for our mental health, and for our spiritual health.”
Every living thing—from microorganisms on human skin to behemoth blue whales in the ocean—plays an integral role in supporting life on the planet. So, for example, losing a single insect species may not seem like a big deal. Yet, every loss in nature is akin to pulling another wooden block from a Jenga game. Remove enough pieces and the tower, or in this case, the biosphere—the living layer of planet Earth that supports life as we know it—collapses.
Case in point: A 2017 Center for Biological Diversity analysis of North American and Hawaiian native bees—which play a vital role in functioning ecosystems—found that nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is “imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.” In addition, German studies of insect populations in Europe suggest we are, “on course for ecological Armageddon,” as population numbers have plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years. This loss of healthy insect populations, “is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”
Preventing such catastrophic outcomes, says Woodley, begins with understanding why biodiversity is declining, and then taking immediate, effective action to reverse course.
“The two greatest causes of biodiversity loss are habitat loss, primarily on land, and over-exploitation, primarily in the ocean,” he adds. Woodley explains that we can solve these problems by permanently protecting more lands and oceans and managing them for their conservation values.
That’s precisely the mission of the global Campaign for Nature, a partnership launched in 2018 by the Wyss Foundation and the National Geographic Society. Under the leadership of Hansjörg Wyss, named the inaugural National Geographic Philanthropist of the Year in 2019, the foundation has invested over $600 million in the last two decades to conserve more than 50 million acres of land and wildlife habitat across the globe. To respond to the growing global biodiversity crisis, Wyss has committed an additional $1 billion over the next decade in support of the Campaign for Nature’s “30 by 30” goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030.
Currently, only 15 percent of the land and seven percent of the ocean are protected. The campaign calls on policy makers to invest in conservation and commit to The New Deal for Nature and People, a science-driven plan to save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. This plan, which is currently being developed, is set to be finalized and signed in October at the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China. The Campaign for Nature is working to ensure that the plan establishes “30 by 30” as a global conservation target and core component of the strategy to safeguard biodiversity around the world.
Instead of simply setting aside 30 percent or more of the land and oceans as protected, the Campaign for Nature also encourages nations, in full partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities, to focus on the right 30 percent. Those areas, says Woodley, harbor the parts of biodiversity, known as biodiversity values, that are the most important to protect to keep life intact on the planet.
These values, Woodley explains, include endangered species and ecosystems; rare species and ecosystems; representativity (examples of every living thing on Earth); unique aggregations like bird migration stopover points, fish spawning sites, and caribou calving areas; and intact wilderness areas, the Earth’s last wild places.
“If you take those values for any given area on the planet, you always get to at least 30 percent,” Woodley says. “The more values you add into the mix, you can easily get up to over 70 percent of the Earth.”
The campaign also recognizes the importance of promoting indigenous-led conservation and respecting indigenous rights in the 30 by 30 effort. Indigenous and local communities manage or hold tenure over lands that support about 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, making it essential for these communities to be full partners in developing and implementing strategies to safeguard biodiversity.
Protecting the health of key biodiversity areas around the world also is vital for tackling climate change. Without this protection, no amount of helpful human intervention—such as developing fully renewable resources—can keep the devastating effects of climate change at bay, says National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala.
Sala is among the authors of a 2019 scientific paper outlining the need for a Global Deal for Nature (GDN). The science-driven plan recommends the 30 by 30 goal as an interim target to address the dual crisis of unprecedented biodiversity loss and rapid climate change. Pairing the GDN and the international Paris Agreement to combat climate change, Sala and his co-authors assert, “would avoid catastrophic climate change, conserve species, and secure essential ecosystem services.”
“Biodiversity is stability,” says Sala, the founder and leader of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project to protect the ocean’s last wild spaces. “Trees, wetlands, grasslands, peat bogs, salt marshes, healthy ocean ecosystems, mangroves, and plants absorb much of the carbon pollution humans put into the atmosphere. Yet, right now, less than half of the planet is in its natural state, which isn’t enough. … Everything we need to survive depends on the work of other species. The irony is that the fate of all these species is in our hands.”
Bottom line: Nature needs us to act—now. Protecting at least 30 percent of the planet is an important first step, which, the Campaign for Nature emphasizes, must be accompanied by long-term funding for management.
“We need to make sure natural areas are as highly protected as possible,” Sala adds. “Otherwise, they are what we call ‘paper’ parks—protected on paper, but without a plan. Protected areas need clear regulations and fines if people don’t comply.”
To strengthen protections and achieve the 30 by 30 goal, the Campaign for Nature calls for a collaborative approach to conservation, including working with and respecting the rights of indigenous people. This modern conservation model supports community-led practices, such as Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas, Other Effective Conservation Measures, and IUCN Protected Area Categories I-VI.
Without long-term funding for community-led conservation practices and new and existing protected natural areas, the science tells us, biodiversity—and our way of life—will continue its rapid decline.
“[Moving to] Mars is not an option,” Sala says. “The only conditions for our life and for the prosperity of human society are here on Earth. We are part of it, and it is up to us to protect it.”