A Global Deal for Nature: How New Targets for Land Protection & Regeneration Are Transforming Conservation

As wild places throughout the world continue to be threatened by human development and climate change, a snowball effect has been created … and it’s growing rapidly. Climate change and its effects create lasting harm and destruction for many plants and animals, while that same loss of biodiversity feeds the flames of climate change. Leading scientists and conservation organizations are transforming our vision for land protection and restoration, from conserving “biodiversity hotspots” towards a global solution that incorporating ambitious but achievable targets for protecting vast swaths of the earth, while investing in restoration and regeneration, now.

Dr. Carly Vynne, a leading wildlife biologist and conservationist, currently Principal Consultant at Osprey Insights and a Strategic Partner at RESOLVE, has worked around the world on major conservation projects for many decades and is one of the co-authors of the groundbreaking Global Deal for Nature proposal. The proposal calls for a milestone of at least 30% of lands protected by 2030 with an additional 20% in climate stabilization areas. It is also the first global plan to include land, freshwater, and marine ecoregions. 

In this article, Teo Grossman, Senior Director of Programs and Research at Bioneers, interviews Dr. Carly Vynne about the need to prioritize biodiversity in the pursuit of global climate justice.

TEO GROSSMAN: Can you tell us about your background and story: how you got here, where you grew up, and what inspired you?

CARLY: I grew up in Seattle, and I served as a ranger with the National Park Service for a few summers in my college years. During that time, I got to explore, learn and teach about the biologically diverse gem of the Olympic Peninsula. I quickly realized the Olympic Peninsula needs people to advocate for its conservation. I loved that place, and it was only there because people had worked hard to protect it. That was a profound lesson that shaped me for the rest of my life. That set me on a path of focusing on conservation biology and large-scale land protection in my studies and work. I couldn’t think of a better job than combining being out in nature studying animals while working intellectually to explore interesting scientific questions and trying to solve challenging problems. 

TEO: Did you have an innate fascination with animals as a kid? Were you always interested in them?

CARLY: I was lucky that I was exposed to beautiful places as a child. Instead of going to summer camp, I stayed with my grandparents who lived on the San Juan Islands, and I spent my time down in tide pools making tide pool zoos and sorting animals. But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My dad was in the mining industry and worried when I didn’t know what I would major in, so he advised me to go into Environmental Studies. I think in his mind that meant that I would learn how to reclaim and restore polluted or damaged sites (maybe including ones the mining industry had ravaged?). He certainly didn’t expect that I’d end up becoming a biodiversity specialist, advocating for the protection of large landscapes, so his advice turned out to be good, but probably not in the way he expected. 

TEO: What do wild places mean to you? Why do they matter?

CARLY: For one thing, being in a wild place is one of the best ways to connect us to something much greater than our own lives. I love being in an area that has had the same animals there for hundreds of years, and it’s exciting to get to see rare birds and follow the tracks of different animals. 

And of course, as a scientist, I think a lot about what ecosystems do for us, making human life possible, and of the burning need to ensure that future generations have some remnants of this planet’s biodiversity and of the species that are here during our current lives. Ecosystems decline when they are cut up into small, separate, ever-shrinking enclaves, which is what is happening. If we want some hope of a healthy biosphere, we have to protect some much bigger areas, and that’s what I’ve been working on. 

TEO: You were instrumental in part of the writing and crafting of this concept called the Global Deal for Nature, which outlines a goal of fully protecting 30% of the Earth’s surface and sustainably managing another 20% within the next 10 years. How far do we have to go to hit those goals?

CARLY: As regards the terrestrial realm, our immediate, short-term goal is to conserve 17% of the terrestrial realm as soon as possible and to build on that to protect the 30% target by 2030, and that 17% might be within reach, at least on paper, but in the oceans we’re much further behind in terms of area percentage relative to the targets. What we’ve been saying is that to halt biodiversity loss, we need about half the Earth protected. The challenge is that biodiversity is very unevenly distributed, so a target such as “half” needs to make sense for each place. At the end of the day, each region will need to look at how best to conserve the ecosystems and species in that place, so total amounts of protected land and the conservation strategies will vary a lot.

What we’ve done is to systematically look across the Earth’s surface at each of the 846 “eco regions” and to see, in those places that have developed conservation or bioregional plans, what the local experts have said is needed to credibly protect the biodiversity there. And their estimates cover a wide range. In some places protecting 30% would be enough, while a region such as the Amazon probably needs to be 80 to 90% intact to be able to maintain a functioning ecosystem due to the high turnover of species there, but the average of the expert estimates, globally, is about half. And, honestly, most of these regional plans probably vastly underestimate what they need to protect, because only a small percentage of them actually take climate change into account. If you factor in climate adaptation, the need to protect more land to maintain the integrity and functionality of many ecosystems becomes very obvious.

TEO: Can you explain a bit more about the concept of “eco regions” and how you use them in your work?  

CARLY: Eco regions are designated by biogeographers and species experts who track and map where specific groups of lifeforms that are somewhat similar live, and these regions of course tend to also be defined by their distinctive climate patterns, types of landscapes, amounts of rainfall, etc. There have been eco region-based approaches to conservation for a while. It’s not a new concept. There are a variety of different approaches to setting conservation goals, such as focusing on biodiversity hotspots, areas that have the most diversity. Other approaches include focusing on saving those places with endemic species that are under threat or at risk of extinction. Eco-regional approaches are broader: they are more geared to protecting some of everything, and because we wanted a comprehensive strategy for the whole Earth, an eco-region-based approach really made the most sense.

TEO:  Can you share with us how the Global Deal for Nature differs from previous approaches to biodiversity conservation over the past few decades?

CARLY: For the past few decades, until very recently, biodiversity conservation was seen by governments as somewhat of a fringe pursuit, and the funding was such that the approach had to be trying to get the most for the least—how to conserve the most species with scarce dollars, hence the focus on biodiversity hotspots. What’s different now is that more and more people and leaders have finally realized that climate change is bringing much faster and greater ecosystem disruption than any of us had anticipated, and the best science, the best climate models are pretty clear: we can’t lose any more functioning ecosystems to have any chance of stabilizing the climate and addressing plummeting biodiversity. It means that all of the approaches to conservation are important and necessary now—we need it all. And that’s where the Global Deal for Nature was different: we realized and just came out and said very clearly that we need to protect all of this land globally, that there is no other option. That being said, there are still some areas in which we are going to have to make tough decisions and to prioritize conserving nature.

TEO: Beyond conservation, what role might restoration and regeneration of already damaged lands play?

CARLY: That’s a very important question, because if we’re going to say we need to do something, it’s important to say what’s necessary, but it’s also important to understand that within the context of what can actually be done in places around the world now, facing the realities on the ground. And the sad fact is that in nearly a quarter of the world’s eco-regions, only 4% of genuinely intact, biodiverse habitat remains. In those places, protecting half anytime soon doesn’t make sense. In many of those places, protecting 10 or 11% would be a real win, and the real effort in those regions has to be about large-scale restoration projects. But in some of the other three-quarters of the planet, there are places where there is sufficient habitat to protect large tracts of still somewhat intact landscapes, so whether one emphasizes conservation or restoration depends on the current conditions in specific eco-regions, but huge efforts on both fronts will be necessary.

TEO: Could you explain what form restoration takes in different places? And in general, what really needs to be done to restore ecosystems?

CARLY: As with biodiversity which is so unique to each place and so unevenly distributed, there have to be many approaches. In some places just leaving the land so it can heal itself is the best strategy. Many forested regions in particular can lend themselves well to that strategy. 

Even landscapes that have some level of degradation or have been denuded but still have some natural forests around them will for the most part restore themselves very quickly if they’re left alone and not damaged further. In other places far more concerted management action is required, and in others we may need to use more direct interventions, such as the introduction or re-introduction of key species. We are going to need to put in place significant policies here in the U.S. and around the world to provide really good training and jobs and really mobilize very large-scale ecosystem restoration projects. And even the lands that can mostly repair themselves will require a lot of monitoring and protection. A whole lot of much wiser (than in the past), science-based, hands-on management is going to be needed.

TEO: One of the concepts that the Global Deal for Nature introduces is something called “climate stabilization areas.” What are those and how would they work?

CARLY: The idea is this: we know that even if we double the global protected area system, the world’s parks, in the next 10 years (and we actually protect those lands so they’re not just “parks” on paper but genuinely safeguarded, biodiverse ecosystems), so that we achieve that target of 30% of global land genuinely protected (and it’s a very ambitious goal which will require intense efforts to achieve), that still doesn’t get us to the 50% scientists tell us we absolutely need to succeed in stabilizing climate and preserving sufficient biodiversity on our planet. So, we still need another mechanism for protecting the remaining 20%, and there are in fact large areas of somewhat intact forests and prairies and other ecosystems that are not the highest priorities as regards conservation, that aren’t biodiversity hotspots, but that can be really important for climate regulation. Those areas would perhaps not need to have the same intense level of protection as the 30%, but they would have to still be maintained as mostly intact and/or managed as benignly as possible so they are not overdeveloped or ravaged, and some of them could benefit from large-scale restoration initiatives. That 20% could play an enormous role in carbon sequestration, hence our designation of them as “climate stabilization areas.” 

TEO: Can you explain the connection between biodiversity conservation and climate change?

CARLY: Biodiverse ecosystems play a crucial role in sequestering carbon. It’s frustrating that people are focused on climate change at the expense of biodiversity. And it was especially frustrating because it was clear to us that the very same strategies that we needed to implement to preserve the planet’s biodiversity were the same ones that would most effectively help us mitigate climate change. But I’ve come around to feel that maybe climate can be our savior, the wake-up call we needed to address all our problems, because it’s already affecting human lives and economies and everything else in very obvious ways, so now that much of the world seems to finally understand that we need a lot of intact nature to stabilize climate.

TEO: Biodiversity loss is something most people don’t perceive in their daily lives. A major bird study came out recently that reported on the large-scale loss of enormous quantities and species of birds in North America. Is there something that you think we’ve lost as humans, now that so many of us are out of touch with the natural world, so that so many of us just don’t notice?

CARLY: On one hand, there are more and more ways to monitor what’s happening, with amazing new remote sensing and mapping technologies. The team at Google Outreach have done great work collaborating with Amazonian peoples, for example. It’s incredible what we can monitor and see from space, and time-lapse photography and film can show us so much we couldn’t previously see in the natural world. 

But all that great visual imagery and those powerful new tools, as important as they are, don’t really connect people with the living reality of the natural world, the sounds, and the critters. I’d like to see more kids have opportunities to connect with nature, and I’d really like to see us do a better job of capturing and communicating the sounds and sights of the living, breathing forests to connect more folks to the experiences to be had in a full, living biosphere.

TEO: E.O. Wilson popularized the term “biophilia.” How much does biophilia play into the work that you do?

CARLY: I think that just about all of us in the field are motivated by some form of biophilia. I can’t think of anyone I’ve worked with who didn’t get into the field because of a passion for nature and other living beings, and I think that almost every human, deep down, has some appreciation and wonder and desire for connection with the natural world, which is what E.O. Wilson was driving at with the “biophilia” concept. That said, it’s also true that a lot of people in different fields are now engaged in conservation work. It’s not just naturalists cataloguing ants any more. There are economists, bankers, engineers, policy analysts, etc., involved in conservation these days, and some of them may be, on average, less wildly biophilic than wildlife biologists, but they can be major changemakers.

TEO: Part of what I really appreciate about the work that you’ve done and about the project is that you’re really trying to ask really big questions, which is not always appreciated in the sciences, where one tends to focus on asking small, answerable questions that can be tested. Whereas you and your colleagues are asking: “What would it take to save life on Earth, stabilize climate, and maintain essential ecosystem services?” That’s a huge question. What did it take for a bunch of rigorous scientists to get to the point at which you all felt comfortable asking that sort of a mega-question?

CARLY: Many of us on the team have been involved in conservation for decades and it’s begun to be obvious to more scientists and activists that that approach was a losing battle. And when we engaged with Indigenous peoples, who have managed ecosystems for millennia, many of them told us that they managed their lands by leaving around half of them off-limits for long stretches. So, as more and more of a scientific consensus was being reached about the need to protect half of the Earth if we were to have any real chance of stabilizing climate and reversing biodiversity loss, and as it was increasingly obvious that we had very little time to turn things around, we really had no choice but to try to go big. Sticking to an incremental, reductionist approach when the clock is running out on saving the future of life just didn’t make sense. 

TEO: So now your team has formulated the big questions, done enormous amounts of research, and proposed a number of strategies. What comes next?

CARLY: There are many, many levels to an undertaking of this magnitude, to push a global vision. We will definitely have to pressure governments to set aside more protected areas (and to actually protect them on the ground), but to get to half and to a genuinely sustainable world—the vision that most of us want – it’s going to take tens or hundreds of thousands of people from a wide range of walks of life sitting down in their communities, looking at maps and making hard decisions about how to protect what’s needed in their regions in the way that makes the most sense where they are, so part of the solution will be a bioregional approach.

I was on a panel recently with people from the Amazon Headwaters Initiative, an amazing bio-regionally-based project that is trying to bring together many different Indigenous groups and local people to develop a common vision for their incredibly important and very large Amazonian headwaters region. Their work involves reaching agreements among many stakeholders about how to map and set targets and, once agreed upon, defend a common vision that guarantees the integrity and vitality of that ecosystem. That’s a hard and messy undertaking, a lot messier than governments just drawing lines and declaring parks, but getting local people’s full engagement and buy-in is ultimately the only way forward that can work in the long-term, so it’s going to have to be done around the world.

And I see signs of hope even in unlikely places. I grew up in Seattle, and it’s changed so much. It’s a really dense city now. You can stand downtown and see five Amazon buildings on your right and five Google buildings on your left, but you can actually also look at mountains that are now occupied by gray wolves, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago. People can feel proud that they can live in a big city with all it can offer and all its problems and also have restored wild and abundant nature within easy access. We can coexist with vibrant nature, and that’s something we can achieve in more and more places…and we have to. 

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