As humans continue to rapidly expand the scope of their domination of nature – bulldozing and burning down forests and other natural areas, wiping out species, and breaking down ecosystem functions – a growing number of influential scientists and conservationists think that protecting half of the planet in some form is going to be key to keeping it habitable.
The idea first received public attention in 2016 when E.O. Wilson, the legendary 90-year-old conservation biologist, published the idea in his book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. “We now have enough measurements of extinction rates and the likely rate in the future to know that it is approaching a thousand times the baseline of what existed before humanity came along,” he told The New York Times in a 2016 interview.
Once thought of as aspirational, many are now taking these ideas seriously, not only as a firewall to protect biodiversity, but also to mitigate continued climate warming.
One of the major reasons for adoption of these extreme preservation goals is a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which found that more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction. Conducted by hundreds of researchers around the world, the study is considered the most comprehensive analysis of the state of the world’s biodiversity ever.
That report concluded that it’s not only species that are at risk, however. The myriad life-support functions that these species and ecosystems provide also are threatened — everything from clean water and air to flood control and climate regulation, food and a host of other services.
Moreover, some scientists are concerned that the face of the globe has been so altered that the global ecosystem could be near a tipping point that would disrupt the climate and biological systems that sustain life and cause widespread – and perhaps disastrous – environmental instability.
The ambitious goal of protecting and restoring natural systems on a large scale is shared by a number of groups and people. The Wyss Campaign for Nature is working in partnership with the National Geographic Society to support the goals of the so-called “30×30” movement, a highly ambitious initiative that aims to protect 30% of the planet, on land and at sea, by 2030.
Another organisation called Nature Needs Half has drawn in scientists and conservation groups – including the Sierra Club and the International Union for Conservation of Nature – that are pressing for the protection of 50% of the planet by 2030.
The European Parliament has pledged to protect 30% of European Union territory, restore degraded ecosystems, add biodiversity objectives into all EU policies, and earmark 10% of the budget for improvement of biodiversity. In the US, politicians working with conservation organisations recently introduced a resolution to drum up support for protection of 30% of the US’s land and marine areas.