Targeting conservation efforts on places most beneficial to people can advance conservation, climate, and development goals
In a few weeks, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will convene in Montreal to adopt new targets for biodiversity conservation, restoration, and management. Along with the global commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change, these three frameworks will influence sustainable development for the rest of the decade.
Historically, targets for protecting ecosystems and biodiversity have been criticized for inadequately accounting for the needs of people, particularly the needs of local and Indigenous communities. Including nature’s contributions to people is essential for making equitable and just conservation decisions.
New research from a global team, including Natural Capital Project scientists at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, demonstrates how nature conservation contributes to human wellbeing at local and global scales and maps the ecosystems that are not only essential to nearby local communities, but contribute to the well-being of every person on the planet.
Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, this work shows that conserving 30 percent of the Earth’s land and 24 percent of coastal waters would sustain 90 percent of nature’s current contribution to people in every country. This vital support delivered by nature has enormous cultural and economic value by providing food, drinking water, protection from hazards, mental and physical well-being, and many other priceless benefits.
Prioritizing conservation, protection, and restoration efforts to the areas identified as critical natural assets could maintain a high proportion of current natural benefits to people with significant efficiency. Direct benefits of these critical natural areas are widespread – 6.1 billion people live within one hour’s travel and 3.7 billion people live downstream of the critical areas. Many more people may be impacted by the material benefits from nature that enter the global supply chain.
“All people on the planet benefit from nature,” says study lead author, Becky Chaplin-Kramer, Principal Research Scientist at the University of Minnesota. “What is striking is just how many benefit from a relatively modest proportion of our total global land area. If we can maintain these areas in their current state through a variety of conservation mechanisms that allow the types of use that make them so valuable, we can ensure that these benefits continue for years to come.”
These valuable ecosystems can be found in every corner of the planet. Some are well-known environmental powerhouses, like the Congo Basin forests. Others may fly under-the-radar, like the Appalachians in the US, but each one is vital to the communities it serves. Importantly, every country has some critical areas that benefit local communities, often found in headwaters of large river basins or near heavily populated areas. Areas that remain globally important for climate mitigation and biodiversity, like the Amazon, but cannot provide all the critical local benefits, may lead to additional conservation attention to nearby areas, like the Paraná River connecting the many population centers across central South America. Likewise, the headwaters of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers emerge as areas of key importance for many people in Asia.
“For example, here in the USA, 37 percent of the land and 15 percent of our coastal waters provide 90 percent of critical benefits to local communities. Only about a quarter of those lands are currently protected. If we work with local communities to conserve and sustainably manage these places, we could achieve climate and conservation goals while also securing the many benefits of nature for our children and grandchildren,” says Rachel Neugarten, study author and researcher at Cornell University.
Measuring and mapping the areas that provide significant benefits to people provides the information that decision-makers need to better account for impacts on local communities when choosing conservation policies and investments. And decision-makers need not decide between providing natural benefits to people or protecting animal species. In fact, this analysis shows that prioritizing these critical natural areas and the benefits to people they provide simultaneously advances development, conservation, and climate mitigation goals.
“One of the critical questions looking ahead will be: where should we focus our investments of time and resources? While nature is important everywhere, this study helps identify the places that are among the most important for the communities benefiting from these critical landscapes and seascapes, as well as humanity as a whole,” says David Hole, study author and vice president for global solutions at Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “Whether they are providing clean water, food security, or protection from storms, it’s critical these areas are prioritized in global and national conservation efforts.”
The effort is not only the most comprehensive set of nature’s contributions to people yet to be mapped, but the approach developed can be used at various decision-making scales and complemented with local expert and stakeholder input.
“Global maps can provide a big picture view, and reveal large-scale patterns, but they require local context to make decisions for implementation. It’s like how a mapping app on your phone might first give you an overview of your route, but if you want to see what it will look like once you’re at your destination, you would switch to a street-level view– you need both to really know where you are going,” says Chaplin-Kramer. “Ultimately, we hope this information can be used alongside other diverse values of nature, including intrinsic values of species. Recognizing the way people benefit from and rely on nature can help create lasting buy-in for conservation.”
Collaborators and partners include: Basque Foundation for Science, Carleton University, Colorado State University, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas, Instituto Multidisciplinario de Biologia Vegetal, Conservation International, Cornell University, King’s College London, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Penn State University, SPRING, Stanford University, Natural Capital Project, SYSTEMIQ, The Nature Conservancy, UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, University of Bern, University of Minnesota, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences, University of Siena, University of Tasmania, University of the Basque Country, Basque Center for Climate Change, Western Washington University, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund