Aiming high: Can we reach global conservation goals?

17 March 2014 | Article

In 2010 the international community set 20 conservation targets. They include the goal that 17% of the earth’s terrestrial area and 10% of marine and coastal areas are conserved by 2020. Is this achievable? Dr Jon Hutton, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre responds.

I think the broad target is reachable but we need to pay more attention to the ‘small print’. The spatial component — the percentage figure — is useful and it’s great that the international community is behind it. But we need to use this as an opportunity to mobilise greater support for improving the way protected areas are managed.

The target: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.

The key is that we attain a system of protected areas that are effectively and equitably managed. We know that only a small percentage of the world’s 200,000 protected areas are well managed. Most of them lack the funding, skills and human resources to fulfill their purpose of conserving nature and cultural values.

IUCN has done some good work on defining what we mean by effective and equitable and is well placed to unite all the players needed to make sure these concepts translate into practice on the ground.

It seems that countries are keen to meet the target and many are making a significant effort to do so. Currently around 14% of land and perhaps as much as 3% of the oceans are protected and there are various means at a nation’s disposal to make the extra ‘push’. One is to reassign land formerly used by the military. The fact that these areas have been off-limits for decades can mean they contain intact ecosystems and have become havens for wildlife.

Another approach, though one which some might consider cheating, is to declare protected areas in the heart of working landscapes. For thousands of years, people have shaped their landscapes while conserving the natural resources they depend upon for their livelihoods. Many of these landscapes have already been declared special protected areas – in the Brecon Beacons of the UK for example. I’m sure there are many other examples where protected areas can incorporate both conservation and economic activity that are already intertwined.

The world is full of demands and competing agendas. If we want to keep nature that we value so much intrinsically, we need to make a stronger case to mainstream it in society and make it understandable to the wider world in terms of the benefits it offers.

Protected areas offer a range of ‘goods and services’ including recreation and tourism, clean water supplies and protection against natural disasters. Many of these are not traded on commercial markets and therefore have no conspicuous market value. However, we still need to find ways to measure these goods in terms that our economies and polititians understand, so that their relevance to national economies can be clearly shown. Realistically, and a bit sadly, this may be one of the few ways we can get the attention of decision makers.

One thing for sure that we need to do before 2020 is to get a better picture of the state of existing protected areas and a more automated methodology for measuring changes. For this, there is great potential to harness the power of remote sensing. We can then have a clearer picture of whether habitats are intact or not. We can monitor threats and then we can direct resources accordingly.

We also need to think beyond 2020 and create a vision for protected areas in the longer term. This may well involve a new set of targets that are not necessarily spatially based, but focus more on reinforcing the effectiveness and equity of management of the land that will by then be set aside for conservation.