Aidan Braun is a Frontier Group summer intern.
From mass extinctions to super storms and melting ice caps, the world is in the midst of interlocking crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity that seem complicated and intractable. But what if there were steps we could take today to address both crises?
The world is currently undergoing its sixth extinction event; animal populations have declined 60% in the last four decades and experts suggest that 1 million species face extinction as humans continue using natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Habitats that lack diversity are less stable in the face of extreme climate events– making them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – and can be less useful to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
That’s why it’s promising that the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, in an action plan released in late June, adopted the concept of conserving 30% of U.S. land and 30% of its oceans by 2030.
As of 2016, with 14.7% of Earth’s land and 10% of territorial waters protected, the world was close to meeting the target of protecting 17% of land and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Experts around the world have since determined that these benchmarks are not sufficient. While the current levels of preservation sound remarkable, less than 20% of key biodiversity areas are currently protected and just 20% of countries have properly assessed the state of their protection areas.
Experts around the world concluded that preserving 30% of lands and the ocean is necessary to prevent the collapse of the environment. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity included this proposal in its 10-year plan. The House select committee then included a similar goal for the U.S. as part of its recommended plan to counter the climate crisis.
The conversation around the 30 x 30 goal often centers around the importance of preserving biodiversity. Intentionally protecting important habitats allows for the maintenance of biodiversity around the world during a time in which natural populations are plummeting.
At the same time, land and ocean preservation can also help fight climate change. Depending on how we treat our forests and oceans, they could either be part of the problem or part of the solution in reducing atmospheric CO2. Because they are carbon sinks, the destruction of forests and ocean vegetation would release vast amounts of stored carbon into the air. Preserving forests and ocean vegetation, on the other hand, will allow for the continued storage of carbon in plants and soils that would otherwise contribute to the greenhouse effect.
At the moment, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is almost 50% higher than it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution - an increase from 280 ppm to 417 ppm. The 417 ppm recorded in May 2020 is the highest ever recorded atmospheric CO2 concentration and about 2.3 ppm greater than in May 2019. Forests and other land vegetation play an essential role by absorbing ~30% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Deforestation, on the other hand, can release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The destruction of tropical forests alone accounts for 8% to 10% of all CO2 released annually worldwide.
The ocean serves a similar function by sequestering another ~30% of annual CO2 emissions. Both the water and plant life of the ocean contribute to the effort. Like terrestrial plant life, seagrasses and other marine flora absorb carbon via photosynthesis. Seagrasses can increase carbon storage in the soil of the ocean floor, with benefits that last for millennia. Studies demonstrate that human interference can damage the health of seagrass ecosystems, disrupting delicate ocean food chains. One study in Sweden showed that a decline of more than 90% of cod stock due to overfishing led to an abundance of intermediary predator fish and consequential depletion in smaller omnivores and herbivores. The lack of plant eating organisms resulted in the overgrowth of an algae species that reduced the growth of seagrass. In another study about seagrass abundance, top-down pressures leading to a proliferation of sea urchins were found to have depleted seagrass habitats. Protecting marine areas will preserve biodiversity and maintain the integrity of important food chains, thus ensuring that seagrasses and other flora are not depleted when ecosystems become out of whack.
Committing to conserving 30% of the ocean and 30% of the land is an ambitious goal that requires intensive international cooperation. But at a time when the Trump administration is taking America backwards on climate, land preservation is one area where progress is being made. On July 22, the House of Representatives voted to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation’s largest source of federal funding for parks and land preservation. Should President Trump sign the legislation – as he is expected to – it would provide a financial shot in the arm for states and federal agencies working to move the nation toward achievement of the 30 x 30 goal.
In the past few years, America has weathered more frequent powerful storms, endured unprecedented wildfires and experienced record temperatures. In the face of more severe environmental consequences, the 30x30 goal provides a plan to protect the plants and animals of our natural environment and save the climate while doing so.
Photo: USDA Forest Service