With climate change on track to become the greatest threat to global biodiversity before the end of this century, protected areas will become even more important than they are today as a way to conserve species and their habitats.
“The conversion of wilderness—forest, grassland, and swamp—to urban growth, agriculture, and pasture has already caused losses of perhaps one species in 10 in the natural ecosystems disturbed by humankind,” Climate News Network reports. But by 2070, human-induced climate change could “overtake the damage delivered by changes in the way land is used, with catastrophic consequences for birds, reptiles, mammals, and other vertebrates.”
One recent study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B put the potential loss at 20 to 40% of all species, while a second paper in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution “spells out the challenge for governments, communities and conservators,” Climate News Net notes: “The present targets for biodiversity conservation are simply inadequate. They leave 83% of the land surface unprotected, and 90% of the oceans not effectively conserved.”
Scientists have been warning for two decades that climate change could threaten thousands of animal and millions of plant species, often by damaging forests that “provide a natural habitat for countless forms of life.” But the opposite side of the coin is that “biodiverse habitats, especially forests, are part of the natural machinery for limiting climate change,” writes Climate News Net reporter Tim Radford. Moreover, “in simple cash terms, forests are worth more to humankind as natural forests than as plantations, or cattle ranches.”
“Humanity asks a lot of the natural world. We need it to purify our water and air, to maintain our soils, and to regulate our climate,” said the University of Queensland’s Martine Maron, lead author of the Royal Society study. “Yet even as we increase the extent of protected areas, they don’t necessarily prevent the loss of natural systems. They’re often located in areas that might not have been lost anyway—and the current target of protecting 17% of terrestrial systems will never be enough to protect species as well as provide the benefits humanity needs.”
Some recent studies have called for protecting up to 50% of the globe as wild spaces, and the latest research suggests that target may also fall short of what’s needed.
“We need a big, bold plan,” said co-author James Watson, of the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society. “There is no doubt that when we add up the different environmental goals to halt biodiversity loss, stabilize runaway climate change, and to ensure other critical ecosystems services such as pollination and clean water are maintained, we will need far more than 50% of the Earth’s natural systems to remain intact.”