There is a goal within the nature conservation movement to protect 30% of Earth by 2030. This includes preserving both land and ocean and would require massive global participation, as each country would have to preserve 30% of its territory. The goal of this is to protect biodiversity and nature in general, which have been on a steep decline since the start of the industrial revolution. Preserving nature also helps us fight climate change, as it can provide defenses against the impacts of climate change.
There has been some recent progress towards this goal. Last December, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which takes steps towards preserving 30% of the Earth by 2030. Additionally, many countries have committed to the 30x30 goal, though some are a lot further along than others.
For the most part, countries have done more to conserve land than ocean. Currently, less than 3% of the ocean is protected in marine protected areas (MPAs) that have strong enough regulations to safeguard biodiversity. Some countries are doing a wonderful job protecting the ocean, such as Colombia, which was the first country in the western hemisphere to protect 30% of its ocean, and Panama, which is the only country in the world
that has protected 50% of its ocean. Sadly, for most, offshore ecosystems are far away areas that are not visible or understood, so people do not think about protecting the ocean in the same way they would think about protecting a forest. But the main reason that the vast majority of the ocean is unprotected is that there was no one to protect it. Each country can protect ocean within its exclusive economic zone, which generally stretches from the coastline to 200 miles offshore. Everything beyond that, which is almost two-thirds of the ocean, is ungoverned, meaning its resources could be harvested by anyone and protected by no one.
This is terrible because the ocean is so important to us. Ocean ecosystems produce around half of the oxygen we breathe, they represent 95% of the planet’s biosphere, and they sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide, making them the world’s largest carbon sink. The inability to protect most of the ocean was a huge problem, but luckily, that just changed.
After nearly two decades of talks, the High Seas Treaty was just adopted by the United Nations. It is a legal framework for the parts of the ocean outside of national jurisdiction. The treaty provides a way for MPAs to be created in the high seas, allowing vast swaths of ocean to be protected. This can preserve vital ecosystems from overfishing and heavy extraction. The treaty also sets global standards for environmental impact assessments on commercial activities in the ocean. Additionally, the treaty establishes a conference of the parties (Cop) to meet periodically to hold member states accountable on issues such as governance and biodiversity and to finalize new agreements (for example, there is a Cop for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity every two years, and a Cop for the UN Climate Change Conference every year). While there are areas of improvement for this treaty, it is fantastic that there is finally an agreement. Having set legislation allows progress to start and allows it to come more easily in the future.
It is clear that countries around the world can come together to protect nature, as recent initiatives on protecting biodiversity have been successful. Now, they just need to do the same when it comes to climate change. We need to pressure our leaders to end our reliance on fossil fuels, because if we can get them to come to agreements as important as this one, we will be able to halt climate change