OPINION: Does the world need a global safety net?

by Eric Dinerstein | RESOLVE
Wednesday, 16 September 2020 12:26 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It's time to conserve more land, to deal with climate change and biodiversity loss, and to prevent more pandemics

Eric Dinerstein is director of biodiversity and wildlife solutions at RESOLVE.

In 2020, we have reached an inflection point that will determine the future of life on Earth. Existential threats—the species extinction crisis, climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, devastating zoonotic outbreaks more deadly than the current coronavirus pandemic—loom on the horizon.

We have a decade to achieve major progress or risk losing a livable biosphere for future generations. If we enact a new plan outlined below, a vibrant Earth is a strong possibility. 

This hopeful path for humanity is charted in a new paper calling for creation of ‘A Global Safety Net’ to reverse biodiversity loss, stabilize the Earth’s climate, prevent ecosystem collapse, and reduce the risks of future pandemics.

To address these planetary emergencies, we have mapped out regions most important to conserve to prevent extinctions, promote carbon retention, or achieve both goals simultaneously. Besides the 15% of the terrestrial surface currently protected, we must devote conservation attention to an additional 37% of land. (Fortunately, about 50% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is still intact or semi-intact).

We then integrated the most complete global spatial data, comprising 11 key elements of biodiversity and the ability of those habitats to store carbon in a series of maps. Twenty countries and 50 eco-regions represent a disproportionate share of the target and identified in our report.

A foundation of the Global Safety Net is that efforts to conserve nature and stabilize the climate are interdependent. We cannot remain below the critical threshold of a 1.5° C degree rise in global average temperature without protecting biodiversity such as species-rich rainforests or tropical reef systems that store carbon and we cannot save rainforests such as those in the Amazon or coral reefs from overheating unless we stay below 1.5° C. Above this critical temperature threshold, the ecosystems we depend upon to feed humanity and regulate the climate unravel.

The good news is that erecting the Global Safety Net - combined with a phaseout of deforestation and conversion of natural lands before 2040, a large-scale land restoration effort to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and a shift to 100% renewables by 2050 - we have a pathway to remain below 1.5° C.

Included within the Global Safety Net is 2.7% of land that could be protected or restored to connect intact habitats. This network of restored wildlife corridors, covering approximately 350 million hectares of land would allow for safe passage of species as climatic conditions shift among eco-regions and deliver the necessary carbon removal to stay below 1.5°C.

Our most important finding: lands claimed by indigenous peoples account for 37% of the habitat needed to erect the Global Safety Net. Empowering and financing these communities to conserve their lands, should they choose to do so, is the most powerful intervention to safeguard nature and the climate.

Another outcome of the Global Safety Net is increased protection from the transmission of viruses from wildlife to humans. Especially in the tropics, establishing a moratorium on deforestation and fragmentation would greatly reduce contacts between wildlife and human settlements.

These conservation landscapes could become Pandemic Prevention Areas, and financed and managed as such. A precursor paper entitled the Global Deal for Nature, published in 2019, called for an end to illegal consumption of wildlife and trafficking. Had those practices been terminated, we might have avoided the coronavirus.  

The level of planning and foresight to scale nature conservation requires the emergence of stewardship at a planetary scale. Decades after the motto “think globally, act locally” was coined, the Global Safety Net offers a solution to today’s converging socio-ecological crises, from local to global.

Human societies are late to rectify impending climate breakdown, massive biodiversity loss and now preventing pandemics. The Global Safety Net, if erected promptly, offers a way for humanity to catch up, rebound, and reset.