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To meet U.N. climate, biodiversity goals, 79% of plant cover must be saved, study

A hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower.

A hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower. Image by Skyler Ewing via Pexels (Public domain).

  • A study suggests that approximately 79% of Earth’s remaining natural vegetation should be protected to meet the international goals set by the United Nations on climate, biodiversity and development.
  • Vegetation plays a crucial role in purifying water, regulating the climate, supporting biodiversity, and stabilizing the soil, making its preservation essential for nature and people
  • The study highlights the need to go beyond formal protections of wild places and address the ongoing depletion of natural vegetation due to intensive human land uses.
  • Ensuring the land rights, security of tenure, and meaningful engagement of Indigenous peoples (who safeguard 80% of the planet’s biodiversity) and local communities is crucial for successful conservation efforts.

Plants play a vital role in purifying water, regulating the climate, supporting biodiversity, and stabilizing the soil. Or more simply put, vegetation holds the planet together.

Because of this, international goals around preserving land vegetation have been set by the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention to Combat Desertification, and Sustainable Development Goals.

So how much of the Earth’s remaining vegetation do we need to keep if we are to have any hope of meeting those international goals?

According to new research published in the journal Conservation Biology approximately 79% of the Earth’s remaining natural vegetation — a minimum of 67 million square kilometers (26 million square miles), or an area roughly seven times the size of China — should be protected to fulfill the goals set forth by the four U.N. resolutions.

Natural and seminatural terrestrial vegetation that needs to be preserved to contribute to the achievement of at least (a) one of the four retention targets; and (b) number of targets covered by those vegetated areas. Image courtesy of Simmons et al. (2023).

“Forests and other natural vegetation store carbon to halt climate change, provide habitat to protect biodiversity, and conserve soil to prevent desertification,” Patrick Gonzalez, a climate change scientist and forest ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email. “The research validates the need to protect a large part of our Earth to assure these three essential services for nature and people.”

While the target of covering approximately half the terrestrial surface of the planet with natural vegetation aligns with the concept of Half Earth (conserving half the land and sea), the authors clarify that their recommendations go beyond formal protections of wild places.

“Formal protection is not our focus,” co-author Martine Maron, a professor of environmental management at the University of Queensland, Australia, told Mongabay in an email. “We were interested in the consequences of ongoing depletion of natural vegetation, and its replacement with intensive human land uses. In many areas, this loss of vegetation continues, even as the area under formal protection is increasing.”

The authors also argue that the widely discussed and controversial “30 by 30” proposal, which aims to protect 30% of nature by 2030, falls short of what is necessary to ensure the maintenance of essential ecosystem functions and services.

“This 30×30 narrative … simply won’t be enough to ensure our survival,” co-author April Reside, also from the University of Queensland, said in a statement. “Our work shows these ambitions need to be set much higher if essential ecosystem functions and services such as soil health, clean air and water, and more, are to be maintained.”

The study emphasizes the importance of including Indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation efforts. Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. Securing Indigenous and community land rights has been shown to be more effective than carbon capture plans in land-use changes, such as reforestation, according to The Land Gap Report.

Indigenous leader Alessandra Korap Munduruku confronted Anglo American over its attempts to mine on protected Indigenous land, in the Brazilian Amazon, leading the mining giant to withdraw its prospecting applications. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

“Already, stewardship by Indigenous people and other local communities is central to the maintenance of healthy ecosystems,” Maron told Mongabay. “Expansion of efforts to enable such stewardship in a way that aligns with the aspirations of such communities will require ensuring security of tenure and access, and meaningful engagement.”

While vegetation benefits all people, certain communities, particularly those in biodiverse countries in the tropics, bear a disproportionate burden of maintaining that vegetation. The authors emphasize that addressing this challenge requires equity and efforts to ensure the aspirations of these communities are respected.

Maron also highlighted the importance of offering incentives for preserving and sustainably managing natural vegetation. Achieving these goals requires a concerted effort from governments, conservation organizations, businesses and the general public, the authors state.

In addition to stopping the destruction of ecosystems, experts say, we must also steeply reduce fossil fuel emissions, decarbonize food systems, and turn to regenerative agriculture and agroforestry to address the climate crisis and support the plants, animals and people of the planet

Meeting these goals is a formidable challenge. Humanity has already failed to meet biodiversity and climate targets. Imbalanced power dynamics, poor governance, limited resources, and competing development objectives are among the obstacles that the authors say will need to be addressed.

“Everyone needs to understand that we cannot afford to lose much more of what we have left,” Maron said. “Governments, conservation NGOs, business, and the public all need to get on board, and collectively we can rally to save what’s left while there’s still time.”


Simmonds, J. S., Suarez‐Castro, A. F., Reside, A. E., Watson, J. E., Allan, J. R., Atkinson, S. C., … Maron, M. (2023). Retaining natural vegetation to safeguard biodiversity and humanity. Conservation Biology37(3), e14040. doi:10.1111/cobi.14040

Banner Image: A hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower. Image by Skyler Ewing via Pexels (Public domain).

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