A hummingbird on a tree branch in a forest in Costa Rica

The Global Biodiversity Framework's "30x30" Target: Catchy slogan or effective conservation goal?

In the lead-up to COP 15, we take a closer look at one of the key targets included under the proposed Global Biodiversity Framework.

By Veronica Lo, Nicole Jang on December 6, 2022

Still reeling from the difficult 27th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 27) negotiations, the international community is now heading into another major meeting on the environmental calendar: the second part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 15), which will take place in Montreal from December 7 to 19. While the biodiversity COPs are normally less embattled than their climate cousin, this year may prove different, as 196 parties come together in the hopes of finalizing negotiations for a new Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). 

The GBF replaces the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 20112020 and associated Aichi Targets agreed on by parties in 2010, which were meant to guide international efforts on biodiversity conservation both within the CBD and beyond it. Those targets were largely missed, and the GBF itself is coming 2 years late, given that it was originally due for 2020. An ambitious replacement strategy is urgently needed, given that global loss of biodiversity and ecosystems has accelerated at an unprecedented rate. Humanity is faced with the highest extinction rate in our history, with 1 million animal and plant species currently threatened with extinction, many within decades.

Views differ dramatically over what should be included in this new global framework on biodiversity, including how much of earth’s land and sea to protect, how to finance such an agreement, and how to conserve nature and sustainably use biodiversity in ways that benefit all equitably, particularly for Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

One of the hot-button components of the GBF is the “30x30” conservation target, which is draft target 3. This target calls for 30% of the earth’s land and sea to be conserved through the establishment of protected areas (PAs) and other area-based conservation measures (OECMs). The 30x30 target is more ambitious than its predecessor, Aichi Target 11, which aimed for the protection of 17% of land and 10% of coastal and marine areas. Aichi Target 11 was partially successful in numbers, but less so in quality, due to concerns that many protected areas lack connectivity, do not always safeguard the most important areas for biodiversity, and are not equitably and effectively managed.

Target 3 will clearly be contested as negotiators convene in Montreal this month, as there has been vocal opposition in the lead-up to COP 15. Some delegations worry about focusing too closely on numbers rather than on biodiversity outcomes, while others have flagged concerns about how 30x30 will be implemented fairly and equitably. This article unpacks the key concerns, along with recommendations on how to address these concerns in the final GBF and its subsequent implementation.

Quality Versus Quantity

Critics point out that 30% is an arbitrary number, providing catchy public relations appeal, when it is the quality of the protected area that is far more important. They further argue that the global picture of protected areas needs to be representative of all types of life on earth, and given that climate change is already shifting species' distributions, these protected areas should be well connected through corridors that facilitate species' movements and migration patterns. Indeed, there are more than 100 countries and counting supporting the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which has been a strong advocate for the 30x30 target.

Meanwhile, some want to protect more than 30% and are calling for an additional 20% to ensure there is a “global safety net” that will enable an effective response to the climate and biodiversity crises. Scientific briefs on the GBF targets raise the issue of quality and acknowledge differing opinions on the percent area target, but whether quality-related parameters will make it into the final language of the GBF and that framework’s interpretation remains an open question heading into part two of COP 15.

Implementing 30x30

Fuelled by experiences of land grabs, loss of livelihoods, and human rights violations, some groups argue that the 30x30 target endangers the livelihoods, tenure, and customary access of IPLCs to land and resources. 

The term “fortress conservation” has been used to describe nature-centric conservation initiatives that have closed off access to the traditional territories and livelihoods of IPLCs, when they have been stewarding nature through generations. Research also points to equal or higher levels of biodiversity in Indigenous-managed lands compared to protected areas in some regions. Other critics describe the 30x30 target as a dangerous distraction from the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, which include rampant overconsumption.

Where Do We Go From Here, and How Do We Reconcile Competing Views?

The GBF must place a heavier emphasis on the quality of PAs and OECMs to accompany the 30% target. While the current language refers to ecological representation, connectivity between systems of PAs, and integration into wider seascapes and landscapes, there should be an explicit mention of strategic siting of protected areas to cover intact ecosystems and key biodiversity areas of variable percentages. This will also help ensure that measures are taken to promote the long-term resilience of these conserved areas to climate impacts. 

A closer look at the supporting information for the 30x30 target reveals a scientific basis for increasing the area target from 17%. Leading scientists from both the climate and biodiversity communities have affirmed this: a joint workshop report co-sponsored by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that conservation targets must become significantly more ambitious and have a greater scope than in earlier iterations. These changes are essential given that many existing protected areas are too small and patchy and are inadequately resourced. Some of these are managed so poorly that they are at risk of degazetting or de-listing—in other words, they could lose the legal protections they have in place or see these protections curbed significantly. 

This increased ambition does not need to result in fortress conservation, as momentum is growing among conservation organizations and national authorities to move toward more integrated, rights-based conservation and development initiatives.

Like the Sustainable Development Goals, the new targets under the GBF should be seen as interlinked, indivisible, and underpinned by human rights-based approaches, including free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). This means that policy-makers cannot achieve one GBF target without also making gains on the other 21 targets. Successful achievement of 30x30 will mean that Targets 20 on traditional knowledge and 21 on participation are also reached, in addition to targets related to securing investments and capacity building for equitable and transparent governance of PAs. 

While safeguards are mentioned in the draft 30x30 target, FPIC, recognition of land tenure rights, and support for livelihood opportunities should be made explicit. Taking care of the other 70% of the earth, including restoring degraded land and ensuring the effective management of existing protected areas, will also be crucial to the success of GBF implementation.

Voices from IPLCs-led conservation initiatives need to be amplified, as Western science has much to learn from other kinds of knowledge systems. For example, in Canada, the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve and Territorial Protected Area is co-managed by local First Nations and the government. Through the Indigenous Guardians Program, which supports Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land stewardship, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation established the Ni Hat’Ni Dene Guardians to protect and conserve ecosystems and sacred sites within the PA through ecological monitoring and mapping, Traditional Knowledge sharing with younger generations, and interacting with and educating visitors. 

At the same time, prioritizing conservation over other land use should not be a foregone conclusion. This is part of exercising self-determination—that Indigenous governments choose the management priorities for their traditional territories—and an important reminder of why safeguards like FPIC are vital for the 30x30 target.

Rights-Based Approaches Toward Achieving an Ambitious Target on Protected Areas

No matter the ambition of the GBF, conservation efforts will always be fraught with tensions and trade-offs between competing land uses, values, and knowledge systems. Facing these challenges requires examining underlying assumptions and uncertainties in the framework, undertaking careful analyses about who stands to gain and lose, and engaging in transparent and inclusive dialogue on ways forward to balance these trade-offs

Even if a global biodiversity framework is achieved at COP 15, which will be an important milestone for international environmental governance, the end result is likely to be imperfect to all. There are ways, however, to ensure that implementation helps make up for some of these imperfections. While the success of the 30x30 target hinges both on quantity and quality, the true test of this target will be the degree to which countries implement human rights-based approaches and empower the leadership of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The authors of this article would like to thank Viviana Figueroa (Indigenous Women's Biodiversity Network), Alanna Evans, Anika Terton, Alec Crawford, and Sofia Baliño for their feedback on prior drafts.

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