Interdependence of climate and biodiversity strategies and targets
Recent reports of tipping points and accelerating feedback loops related to climate change have profound implications for the need to scale nature-based solutions (27, 28). Furthermore, new climate models highlight the important role of halting land use–driven emissions to meet global climate targets. Staying below the 1.5°C limit will require much of the world’s remaining habitat—and a substantial amount of restored habitat in forest biomes—be put under some form of conservation by 2030 (29). Advances being championed under the two conventions responsible for biodiversity and climate—the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—must be accelerated if we are to protect the abundance and diversity of life on Earth and stabilize the climate. A holistic solution is emerging that will accelerate both efforts: conserve at least half and in the right places (9, 11). The Global Safety Net provides a pathway for using nature-based solutions to unite the two work streams.
The spatial coincidence of areas important for biodiversity conservation and carbon storage has long been suspected but is strongly confirmed here. The ecoregions and countries that score high for rare phenomena and intactness (clusters 3 and 4) conserve 1,044,783 megatons of carbon, equivalent to 35.7% of the total carbon present in natural habitats (Table 1). The gains in carbon storage achieved by adding protection of rare phenomena, a single layer, is comparable to carbon storage levels in the 15.1% of land that is currently in protected areas. By focusing conservation effort intensely on high β-diversity ecoregions, large mammal assemblages, intact areas, and wilderness, the payoff for climate stability is enormous.
The Global Safety Net framework presented here contrasts with the classic questions posed by conservation biologists: “How much is enough to save the biodiversity of each biome or ecoregion?” and “How do we protect all species globally in optimization approaches that conserve the greatest number of endemic or threatened species in the smallest area?” These concerns become less relevant under the extensive land conservation requirements of a 1.5°C climate pathway. The various global priority-setting approaches should be viewed as noncompeting: All are necessary to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize the global climate system. A hopeful outcome of this framework and its implications for conservation is that every stakeholder and group can unite under the goal of staying below the dangerous threshold of 1.5°C in global average temperature rise, beyond which it would likely be too late to achieve most of the biodiversity goals set forth in the Convention on Biological Diversity.
One overlooked area of research that should inform future iterations of the Global Safety Net is the restoration opportunities on degraded lands (30). These degraded landscapes could be restored to address both climate and biodiversity concerns. Further, reconnecting forest corridors in degraded lands could offset emissions that will occur before a moratorium on land-based emissions is reached. Focusing restoration efforts on degraded lands that can serve as wildlife corridors could help achieve other objectives, such as the Bonn Challenge (31). Similarly, massive tree-planting programs, if designed using native species and planted to restore corridors, riparian and coastal vegetation, and upper watersheds, could contribute to stabilizing climate and restoring connectivity.
Major opportunities exist for restoration of forests using native plants. Ecoregions such as the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, several forest ecoregions in Madagascar, and the Western Ghats of India are currently underrepresented in this version of the Global Safety Net, which is focused on protection of remaining habitat. Restoration opportunities should drive future iterations and allow for monitoring of recovery efforts. A prime example is the mid-elevation forests of Nepal, previously one of the more deforested and degraded ecoregions, where intensive community forestry programs have led to nearly doubling forest cover in 24 years (32), increasing carbon stocks from 213.42 to 502.03 megatons.
The overlay of mapped indigenous territories with spatial targets 1 to 3 reveals an extensive overlap of 37% and underscores the central role that indigenous peoples and their lands play to preserve biodiversity and regulate Earth’s atmosphere (26, 33, 34). Another observation is echoed by other conservation biologists who have examined maps of indigenous lands and global biodiversity priorities: A 30% area–based target for protection by 2030, as advocated by many groups to the Convention on Biological Diversity, effectively already exists when accounting for indigenous lands, should effectively conserved lands be formally acknowledged by governments as other area-based effective conservation measures (OECMs) (35). In short, the “30 × 30” target is far less ambitious when viewed through this perspective. Many conservation organizations, indigenous peoples, and local communities have called for an area-based target of “at least 50%” under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Explicit in these calls is to allow for the protection of the land rights and traditional management practices of communities most at risk to food insecurity, the negative impacts of land degradation, and climate change.
Can a Global Safety Net be created in time?
There are reasons to support the notion that a Global Safety Net encompassing approximately 50% of land area is achievable. Addressing indigenous land claims, upholding existing land tenure rights, and resourcing programs on indigenous-managed lands could help achieve biodiversity objectives on as much as one-third of the area required by the Global Safety Net. Simultaneously, this focus would positively address social justice and human rights concerns. In addition, economists are examining pathways for scaling conservation and restoration across all land jurisdictions (36). New research from the World Economic Forum ties half the world’s gross domestic product—$44 trillion dollars—directly to nature and its services (37). The recent COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the ability of the world’s governments to mobilize trillions of dollars, and there are a number of proposals emerging to tie environmental restoration and climate response to economic recovery. CSAs offer one framework to move beyond the incrementalism of protected area designation over the past couple of decades. Last, a key finding of this study is that species closest to the brink of extinction or where rare species concentrate could be protected by an addition of only 2.3% more land area if allocated to the right places and well managed. That target should be achievable within 5 years.
The connectivity analysis offers a template to build from and engage local and regional entities in designing programs centered on restoring connectivity. This effort could merge with global habitat restoration and native tree-planting initiatives now under way. Investments needed for the establishment and management of additional protected areas and restoration of degraded lands, while substantial, are small compared with enormous fossil fuel subsidies. The estimated $4.7 trillion per year in fossil fuel subsidies are expected to decline as the Paris Climate Agreement is implemented, making government resources available for restoring, rather than destroying, our global climate system.
Today, the emergence of a strong advocacy for science-based targets offers hope of an accelerated timeline for delivery far faster than we might expect. National-level leadership to champion the Global Safety Net and, by extension, the Global Deal for Nature, could ideally come from the list of 20 countries where increased conservation attention is most needed (Table 3). Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States have an outsized role to play and abundant internal resources to do so. Leadership could also come from countries such as Costa Rica, Peru, Namibia, and others, creating their own national safety nets that incorporate the landmark conservation plans of each nation’s constituent ecoregions, including adjacent marine ecoregions. In the United States, one could envision a California Safety Net or Maine Safety Net built from enhanced terrestrial and marine ecoregion plans. The Global Safety Net could also inform country-scale conservation and development plans, supporting UN conventions through an overlap analysis with outputs of the Country Emissions Gap Reports (38).
Similar to the Paris Climate Agreement, and in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goal 15 (SDG15), a Global Deal for Nature calls for common but differentiated contributions by every nation on Earth toward the collective goal of protecting ecosystems, halting land degradation, and stopping biodiversity loss. Most conservation efforts and land use decisions are local or regional in nature, and implementation of the Global Safety Net will occur from the ground up, by district, state, province, and nation. Saving biological diversity and stabilizing the climate will require increased conservation action, but the tools and designations will vary by place and must be locally appropriate. Countries and indigenous communities will use a variety of designations from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) category 1 protection levels, to OECMs, to CSAs managed for retaining vegetative cover and preventing emissions.
While our analysis makes a distinction between areas managed for biodiversity and those additional areas managed for climate stabilization, a target could still be reached if land were designated as a CSA and managed for priority species. In the current environment, we could also envision intact areas set aside under a pandemic prevention program. These natural habitats would be managed and protected to avoid conversion and reduce human contact with pathogens that lead to zoonotic diseases in areas of high risk. Protecting wildlife in these pandemic prevention areas from overhunting, restricting access to bat caves and roosts, could also reduce the potential for more catastrophic outbreaks.
Future iterations of the Global Safety Net should incorporate additional biodiversity metrics (including marine and freshwater species) and layers that could help inform food and water security. Current and future energy and transportation infrastructure should also be included. Connectivity analyses should be refined by ecoregion to account for the habitats and species populations requiring connectivity and to account for likely climate impacts. To this end, we have designed this version of the Global Safety Net to be updated by adding new data layers and allowing for dynamic analyses via Google Earth Engine (39), so that targets may be adjusted in real time as changes in land use occur. Future iterations can also incorporate higher-resolution ecoregional plans, recent spatial data on arable land, agricultural productivity, yield gaps, energy needs and resources, water balance, and the most recent climate models and various carbon maps. Ultimately, these evolving maps can refine pathways for conserving Earth’s land surface to save the diversity and abundance of life, to produce enough food for humanity, and to stay within the bounds of a safe operating space to ensure the well-being of future generations.
For the Global Safety Net to be politically achievable requires broad engagement from civil society, public agencies, communities, and indigenous peoples. Yet, it is also essential to state clearly that the formulation of the Global Safety Net in no way is intended, is not based on, and does not advocate taking current agricultural land out of production, removing indigenous or other people from lands, or implying that 50% of all 846 terrestrial ecoregions be conserved. In particular, with regard to indigenous peoples, the Global Safety Net reaffirms their role as essential guardians of nature.
The level of planning and foresight that is needed to properly scale nature conservation requires the emergence of a worldview that embraces the notion of stewardship at a planetary scale. Decades after the famous motto “think globally, act locally” was coined, the Global Safety Net offers a possible solution to today’s converging socioecological crises, from local to global. Human societies are late in the game to rectify impending climate breakdown, massive biodiversity loss, and, now, prevent pandemics. The Global Safety Net, if erected promptly, offers a way for humanity to catch up and rebound.