Global Deal for Nature
Apr 14, 2017
A Global Deal for Nature
Our planet faces two major and interrelated environmental crises: climate change and Earth’s 6th mass extinction event. Concerns about climate change prompted the recent Paris Agreement1, a deal for coordinated global action which sets a clear, scientifically based target for ensuring a safe climate. On this Earth Day, 2017, we propose a companion pact—a Global Deal for Nature—to protect nature and the diversity of life on our planet.
The scientific evidence is indisputable that we are now living through Earth’s sixth great extinction crisis2. Species are disappearing about 1,000 times faster today than they have previously, as human activity converts habitat and food sources to incompatible land uses. Many of our planet’s most iconic species, including tigers, giant pandas, elephants, down to the smallest orchids and hummingbirds, could disappear forever by the end of this century if intensive forest clearing and hunting continue. Rainforests and coral reef systems, repositories of the most number of species, are in decline. Degradation of the natural environment is impacting the ability of people to thrive or even survive, be it through loss of access to clean drinking water or important subsistence species, or through disruption or displacement due to climate-related storm events.
There is an alternative future. Scientists agree that we can enhance global ecosystem recovery by designating half of Earth’s land and seas as connected networks of protected areas, to enable the recovery of Earth’s biodiversity and the preservation of indigenous communities rights worldwide who are stewards of much of the world’s biodiversity3,4. At the same time, consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs5) and other mechanisms, we can ensure that the other 50% set aside for development is designed to support the livelihoods of all people, and achieve this goal by 2050. Building towards this future is essential to allow nature and humanity to survive and thrive, especially because 9 billion people will likely inhabit the Earth by 2050.
Arriving at this balance requires a rapid shift in course. There is one Earth. We must honor a new-found commitment to save the space necessary to conserve most all of nature’s species, and the processes that sustain life on it—we must create a global safety net for the web of life. It took 3.8 billion years to create the world we live in; we are now called upon to change course in order to keep it healthy. With enough public support we can generate the political will for governments and local communities to ensure that the 21st century becomes the most hopeful for nature and humanity.
The recent Paris Climate Deal points to a promising approach to a vibrant planet because it sets global goals and supports bottom-up efforts. But it is only a half-deal. To complement the climate efforts, a Global Deal for Nature could have four main pillars:
1. Expanded Habitat Protection: Half the terrestrial realm and 30-50% of the marine realm should be protected in an interconnected way while safeguarding the sovereign rights of indigenous communities. Doing so will be necessary, if not sufficient, to thwart the extinction crisis. From a static view, the goal of half-protected by 2050 seems impossible. Currently, 15% of the terrestrial realm is protected, but a recent study just published in BioScience4 shows that among the Earth’s 846 terrestrial ecoregions—ecosystems of regional extent—nearly 100 are already half-protected, and up to 2/3rds of all ecoregions could reach 50% by putting more lands under conservation management or in some cases active restoration of degraded habitats. Nature is not evenly distributed, however, so careful planning of where these new reserves should go to do the most good is vital.
2. Respecting Indigenous Conservation: Indigenous land conservation and respect of indigenous rights must be central to any new deal for Nature. Full stop. Human rights must be at the center of conservation and much of the world’s biodiversity resides on indigenous lands. Their direction and voice in how to craft such a deal for nature, uniting traditional and scientific knowledge, is the best way to save life on Earth.
3. Large Mammals Lead the Way: Across Africa and parts of Asia, signs point to the end of the megafauna—the large mammals that delight and inspire us and ensure that ecosystems function effectively6. Rather than let them slip away as an anachronism in this modern age, we should channel resources to recover them as we have done so successfully for the southern white rhino and savanna elephants at various times in the last century7,8,9. Other smaller endangered species, restricted to isolated habitats must be recovered and safeguarded.
4. Appropriate Technology: As humans reduce our footprint through appropriate new technologies, growing urbanization, soil building agroecology and intensified aquaculture, it is possible to feed even 9 billion people and still leave room for the other 10 million species on the planet. In this new configuration, a Great Decoupling10 of our need to clear more land, or exploit new frontiers, an alternative is taking shape. One in which all new infrastructure becomes environmentally friendly infrastructure, cities are redesigned and created to be green cities with cheap energy for development, and degraded lands are restored to health. The future will be exciting and prosperous if ecological harmony becomes part of the design, especially if embraced by all corporations, starting with those with major global footprints.
The Paris deal and a Deal for Nature are interdependent. Together they are more likely halt the acidification of the world’s oceans and the decline of coral reefs, thereby protecting essential fisheries that feed a large part of humanity. Preventing the drying up of the central Amazon rainforest would lead to saving millions of species, and would avoid changes in weather patterns and precipitation, both in South America and far from the tropics where the world’s cereal crops are grown. Studies also show that protecting and restoring the species-rich tropical rainforests is the single cheapest action that requires no advanced technology to mitigate global carbon dioxide emissions. The list goes on.
The annual bill for all of the above amounts to about what Americans spend annually on pet food and grooming, about $25 billion11. The payoff would be a living planet for future generations to enjoy and prosper.
Earth’s bounty underpins human well-being, and yet we are poised to wipe these out in the blink of an eye in geological time. Now it is time to give back before our living standards and spirits are further diminished by the loss of the diversity around us. With recent advances in technology and globally available earth information systems, we have the tools necessary to protect most of life on Earth and monitor our progress, should we organize and choose to do so. Adding a Global Deal for Nature would better allow humanity to develop a vibrant low-impact economy while leaving precious room for the rest of life on Earth. We must elevate this Deal to become the overarching conservation paradigm for this century. The two deals together foster nature and humanity’s health and a future for all species and future generations.
Eric Dinerstein, Ph.D.
Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions – RESOLVE
1United Nations. 2017. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Paris Agreement. Accessed on Feb 18, 2017. http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php
2Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, Todd M. Palmer. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction 2015. Science Advances 1: e1400253, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253
3Dinerstein E, et al. 2017 in press. An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half of the terrestrial realm. BioScience;
4Wilson EO. 2016. Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Liveright. United Nations. 2017.
5Sustainable Development Goals. Accessed Feb 18, 2017. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/
6William J. Ripple. Thomas M. Newsome, Christopher Wolf, Rodolfo Dirzo, Kristoffer T. Everatt, Mauro Galetti, Matt W. Hayward, Graham I. H. Kerley, Taal Levi, Peter A. Lindsey, David W. Macdonald, Yadvinder Malhi, Luke E. Painter, Christopher J. Sandom , John Terborgh, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores Science Advances 01 May 2015: Vol. 1, no. 4, e1400103, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400103
7Andrea K. Turkalo, Peter H. Wrege, George Wittemyer. 2017. Slow intrinsic growth rate in forest elephants indicates recovery from poaching will require decades. Journal of Applied Ecology 2017, 54, 153–159.
8Thouless, CR, et al. 2016. African Elephant Status Report 2016: an update from the African Elephant Database. Occassional Paper Series of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, No. 60 IUCN / SSG Africa Elephant Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
9Maisels, F, et al. 2013. Devastating decline of forest elephants in Central Africa. PLOS 8: e59469. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059469
10Fischer-Kowalski M, Swilling M. 2011. Decoupling: Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts From Economic Growth. United Nations Environment Programme.