University of Exeter: ‘Make or break’ year for protecting nature

With key global treaties under discussion this year, Professor Callum Roberts, from the University of Exeter, said failing to agree ambitious targets would “greatly increase the risk of irreversible long-term damage to the global life support system”.

He warned that plans to protect 30% of both land and sea by 2030 (called 30×30) are “by no means a done deal”.

Professor Roberts, a marine scientist, will speak in New York this evening at an event called: “What will it take to protect the oceans?”

The event will also feature Melissa Wright (Bloomberg Philanthropies), Professor Ellen Pikitch (Stony Brook University) and Markus Müller (Deutsche Bank).

“We are belatedly realising that the two greatest challenges of our time – biodiversity loss and climate change – are closely linked,” Professor Roberts said.

“We cannot solve either without bold, effective action on both.”

He said 30×30 represented the “scale and pace of progress needed” – and achieving this will depend on global agreement at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) later this year.

The dates for this conference, due to take place in China later this year, are still to be confirmed – and Professor Roberts said this short notice is “very concerning given the importance of the decisions to be made”.

He also warned that protected areas are “only worthwhile if they are well managed and have the support of local communities”.

“Paper parks (areas that are poorly protected and managed) are still prevalent in the global conservation portfolio,” he added.

“They will not stop biodiversity loss, slow climate change or deliver the many other benefits to nature and human wellbeing that effective protected areas have been shown to provide.

“Therefore, some argue that there should be targets set for quality of protection as well as quantity.

“But setting the bar too high risks the emerging political consensus around adopting 30×30 in the first place. Negotiations are therefore delicate.”

Even if countries do agree to protect 30×30, at present, there is no globally agreed mechanism to create protected areas in international waters beyond the 200 nautical mile limits of national jurisdiction.

“That might seem like a small problem, except for the fact that these international waters cover 43% of the surface of the Earth,” Professor Roberts said.

He said nations had been working to address this “gaping hole” for nearly 20 years. The next stage of negotiations will take place in August.

“There can be no 30×30 without a successful conclusion to this negotiation,” Professor Roberts said.

If a high seas treaty and 30×30 are both agreed, he said a “massive uptick” in public and private investment would be necessary to deliver on the needed protection.

Professor Roberts concluded: “There is no second chance; it’s now or never.”