In December 2022, government representatives and other official bodies from around the world met in Montreal for COP15: The UN Biodiversity Conference. Amongst the many things discussed was the so-called 30 by 30 target – the pledge to conserve 30 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial and marine habitat by 2030.

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We spoke to Dr Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Zoological Society of London, about the significance of the target, the current state of the Earth’s biodiversity and what we can do to reverse the already devastating losses.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity speaks to the range of the variety of life. We think about that right from the genetic level all the way up to variety and whole ecosystems. We often tend to think of species as the flagship for biodiversity. We think about the different animals and plants and fungi that make up life. But it's really the full variety of life.

Unfortunately, biodiversity is a term that doesn't resonate very well with people. As a technical term it captures something, but we're really talking about nature. And nature underpins the ability of humanity to persist. It underpins our health, our well-being, the ability of our economies to function. Unfortunately, we’ve flipped that on its head and we’ve put our economies at the top and we put nature at the bottom. Ultimately, that lies at the root cause of all of our problems.

What what's the current state of biodiversity globally?

It’s declining massively. Every indicator you look at, whether it's the Living Planet Index, which is one that ZSL produces, looking at the state of wildlife populations worldwide, or whether you look at the health of ecosystems or the health of genetic variation, it's all declining. Every single indicator shows us that over a period of time, biodiversity is all declining and this has major knock on consequences for us.

What's causing biodiversity loss?

Principally it's habitat use and habitat loss. Changing natural areas for human use, for example turning primary forest into agriculture or highways or mines. It's also direct overexploitation of species through, for example, fishing and harvesting practises, or the way in which we clear forests for timber.

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And then we've got other drivers of change such as invasive alien species. As we've moved around the world and become increasingly globalised, we've moved species into places they shouldn't be. And then obviously, climate change comes along. Climate change historically hasn't been a major driver of change, but we're going to see it come and dominate over the coming years.

What is the 30 by 30 target? Is it more than just a catchy name?

Yes, 30 by 30 is very catchy. I think a number of people really wanted it to be the 1.5 degrees target but for nature. It refers to wanting to see 30 per cent of terrestrial and ocean systems protected by 2030. So at a very simplistic level, that's what that target is, but there's a lot of detail and nuance that's hidden within that simplicity.

Has the target been well received?

That depends on who you ask. There are two chief criticisms of it. Number one is it represents a form of fortress-based conservation, which can be seen as being very old school. So depending on how you implement it, it can involve quite negative practises in terms of relationships with local communities.

The second major criticism is about the question of quantity over quality. So 30 per cent by 2030 is a sort of arbitrary target. We know that so many areas effectively only exist on paper and that biodiversity has declined as protected areas have increased. If we only think about designating more areas for protected status, we're going to be missing a big part of the problem.

How will we meet the target?

This is all coming down to implementation and financing. And again, these were the real sticking points in Montreal, we are going to need to see a significant mobilisation of resources. There's a $700 billion gap in resources available for conservation to get from where we are to what we think is needed to solve the problem.

Now, countries were very forthcoming with financing at COP and within the new global biodiversity framework. But we're looking at around $30 billion by 2030, not £700 billion. So we're going to have to really see an increase in both public and private financing.

What needs to happen at ground level?

We have lots of prioritisation tools that tell us where the important areas for different forms of nature are, and we should be focussing on those areas first. We should be looking at how we are integrating communities into the management of those areas and how we can ensure that community lands are adequately supported to protect nature. Because that's where I think that great expansion in number is going to come from. It's not going to come from your classic National Park ideas, but from community lands and how they can be supported to protect biodiversity.

To give a tangible example, in the UK we're shifting our subsidy schemes for farming to include nature stewardship as well. So yes, it's for food production, but it's for also protecting nature. So how are we protecting areas that help us meet multiple targets at the same time? So there's lots of detail about planning and prioritisation and support that's going to have to go in into every single country all at the same time. It's quite a job we've got ahead of us.

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

We always talk about a cautious optimism. The presence of the private sector at COP was higher than ever before. Companies have recognised not only the value of looking at nature, but the risks of not looking at nature. That sends a very powerful economic signal and we're starting to really see that shift. Particularly as the private sector pushes, we will see treasuries and finance ministries starting to take stronger note and that's where the shifts really need to happen.

And similarly, I think we are seeing nature, sustainability and climate all coming to the fore of people's attention. From that side, I am really optimistic. My children talk to me about the natural environment and know more about their environment than I ever did as a child. The younger generation are getting increasingly critical and asking more questions.

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So we're seeing action happening. We just need to translate that into the resources that have the impact that will then bend the curve of biodiversity loss in ten years’ time. I think we are creating the enabling framework, but we need to hold countries to account to actually make the changes and make them now because we don't really have the time.

Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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