To Reach “30×30” Conservation Goals, Countries Should Address Three Crucial Questions

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Las Vegas, NV, USA. Photo by Caleb Steele via Unsplash.

By Blake Alexander Simmons

The United States has joined more than 84 heads of state or government in support of the “30×30” conservation agenda — a global commitment to conserving 30 percent of lands and seas by 2030. Following an executive order in January 2021, the Biden administration recently outlined a vision for achieving this area-based conservation target across the United States in the preliminary report, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful.”

However, several questions remain around the design, implementation and decision-making processes of the 30×30 agenda.

In our new article, authored with Christoph Nolte, Assistant Professor at Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment, and Jennifer McGowan, Decision Scientist and Spatial Planner at The Nature Conservancy, we outline three crucial questions that will guide the next decade of area-based conservation in the US and around the world.

1. What objectives matter?

In a January 2021 working paper, we show how diverse objectives ultimately lead to trade-offs. The 30×30 agenda could be used to achieve many objectives related to protecting threatened species, increasing carbon sequestration, preserving habitats on agricultural lands, or increasing the public’s access to nature. Yet, few geographical areas are suitable for all objectives. While all potential objectives may be desirable, more objectives will lead to smaller outcomes for each, and some objectives will be more relevant for different locations. The US and other nations will need to determine what objectives matter for the 30×30 goal so decision-makers can begin planning—understanding that some opportunities may be lost to achieve different objectives.

2. What actions count?

Protected areas, where land is acquired by the federal government, have been the traditional go-to policy instrument for top-down conservation actions, but these can lead to perverse outcomes for people and nature. Successful conservation outcomes can be achieved by more bottom-up actions, like environmental schemes on private and agricultural lands, and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), like conservation areas under Indigenous management. It is unclear what actions will be used to contribute to the 30 percent target. There is also ambiguity around what actions count in defining what is already conserved, such as conservation covenants or management areas that permit logging or mining activities. Without these answers, the conservation gap that needs to be filled to reach 30 percent by 2030 is up to interpretation.

3. Who gets to decide what matters and what counts?

Finally, these decisions need to be made through a transparent and inclusive process of stakeholder consultation with diverse actors, including researchers, practitioners, agricultural landholders, industries, Indigenous leaders and local communities. The ‘America the Beautiful’ report highlighted its commitment to such inclusive decision-making, but the consultation process to date has not been transparent. Outlining an explicit process of stakeholder engagement at all levels (from federal and state government to NGOs and local communities) will increase transparency in how decisions should be made. To maximize social equity and environmental justice within the 30×30 agenda, conservation decision-making must be informed by the diverse knowledge, experiences and needs of the people.

Setting ambitious global conservation targets means nations must answer these tough questions. In all, we urge 30×30 decision-makers to take concrete steps to adopt inclusive and comprehensive pathways that can deliver meaningful conservation outcomes for 30 percent of the planet’s vital lands and seas in the next decade.

Read the Journal Article