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The world has missed its target for protecting oceans to save species

coral reef

The Mayotte Marine Natural Park in the Comoros Islands archipelago, Indian Ocean

Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Governments have hit a global target for creating protected areas on land, but failed to meet a similar goal on oceans, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found.

World leaders in 2010 agreed to tackle alarming species extinctions and declines in biodiversity by expanding protections such as national parks and marine reserves to 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

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UNEP found that while only 16.64 per cent of land had been officially reported as protected by 2020, it is clear from other data that the 17 per cent goal was exceeded. However, just 7.74 per cent of oceans were protected, and even several large pending marine protected areas won’t close the gap.

Despite that shortfall, the numbers should be welcomed, says Neville Ash at UNEP. “It’s good news. There has been tremendous progress both on land and at sea in the last decade.”

In total, 80 countries increased the total size of protected areas, but more than 100 didn’t. Moves to protect land in Algeria, Canada, the Philippines, South Africa and Guernsey – an island in the English Channel – have alone shifted the total protected terrestrial area by 1 percentage point. Varying progress between countries seems to be more down to population densities rather than income levels, says Ash.

The reason ocean protection is lagging appears to be due in part to their sheer size relative to terrestrial areas, and challenges in governments agreeing to designate international waters as protected, says Ash. Only 1 per cent of such “high seas” are protected.

Despite the successful creation of new reserves and national parks on land, biodiversity losses have continued at rates unseen for millions of years. “Protected areas are a core part of stopping biodiversity loss, but in themselves are insufficient,” says Ash, who says they need to be accompanied by more fundamental changes, such as redirecting subsidies for fishing, agriculture and fossil fuels to nature.

Countries have also failed to focus on the quality of protected areas as well as the quantity, he adds. It is hard to even know what the quality is like in many places – UNEP found less than a fifth of the protected areas have been assessed.

The protected areas target is one of 20 biodiversity targets the world agreed in Japan 11 years ago, none of which has been fully met. Negotiations have been under way in the past week to thrash out future targets to be agreed at a UN biodiversity summit in China this October.

Campaigners are calling for a target of protecting 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030, an aim that received a boost today with the launch of a Legacy Landscape Fund to finance conservation areas in developing countries.

Last year, the UK government committed to reaching the 30 by 30 goal on land, but the UNEP numbers suggest that is unambitious, given that the government considers 28.74 per cent of UK land as already protected.

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