New Report Finds Economic Benefits of Protecting 30% of Planet’s Land and Ocean Outweigh the Costs 5-to-1

“This report unequivocally tells us that the time to finance nature—for people and for planet—is now.”

“The benefits to humanity are incalculable, and the cost of inaction is unthinkable.”
—Jamison Ervin, UNDP

That’s how Jamison Ervin, manager of the Global Program on Nature for Development at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), summed up a new study commissioned by Campaign for Nature (CFN), a coalition of over 100 conservation groups and scientists who support protecting at least 30% of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

Protecting 30% of the Planet for Nature: Costs, Benefits, Economic Implications (pdf) was released Wednesday and “is the first ever analysis of protected area impacts across multiple economic sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, and forestry in addition to the nature conservation sector,” according to CFN.

An online tracker managed by a U.N. Environment Program center with support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that about 15% of land and 7% of ocean worldwide currently have some level of protection. The over 100 scientists and economists behind the CFN report found that the economic benefits of protecting 30% of the world’s land and ocean outweigh the costs at least 5-to-1.

The CFN report’s authors conducted a financial analysis which found that expanding protected areas to hit or surpass the 30% target could generate overall revenues of $64 billion–$454 billion per year by 2050, depending on implementation. Considering multiplier effects, the report says, the final boost to global economic output could be over $1 trillion annually.

They also conducted a partial economic analysis that focused on forests and mangroves, and found that “in those biomes alone, the 30% target had an avoided-loss value of $170–$534 billion per year by 2050, largely reflecting the benefit of avoiding the flooding, climate change, soil loss, and coastal storm-surge damage that occur when natural vegetation is removed.”

Currently, the international community invests about $24 billion per year in protected areas, according to CFN. The 30% target requires an average annual investment of about $140 billion by 2030.

As Ervin, who is among the report’s authors, explained in a statement Wednesday:

The cost to protect 30% of our planet, ranging from about $103 to $178 billion, is not inconsequential. However, nature provides more than $125 trillion in benefits to humanity, global GDP is about $80 trillion, and the total global assets under management is about $125 trillion. In this context, the cost of creating a resilient, planetary safety net for all life on Earth barely even registers as a statistical rounding error. The benefits to humanity are incalculable, and the cost of inaction is unthinkable.

The new economic findings bolster ecological and moral arguments often at the heart of calls for increasing conservation efforts. As report co-author Stephen Woodley, vice-chair for science and biodiversity at IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, put it: “Expanding the global protected area estate to at least 30% by 2030 is an essential policy requirement to halt the loss of fellow species on our planet.”

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned in May 2019 that destructive human activities have pushed a million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has directed more attention to the consequences of humanity’s destruction of nature by provoking concerns about future zoonotic diseases.

“Expanding the global protected area estate to at least 30% by 2030 is an essential policy requirement to halt the loss of fellow species on our planet.”
—Stephen Woodley, IUCN

“We must give space for nature. The analysis led by Anthony Waldron shows we can gain financially and economically by implementing this policy,” Woodley said, noting that some governments have already committed to the 30% target. “Protecting nature halts biodiversity loss, helps fight climate change, and lessens the chance of future pandemics. This is sound public policy, economically, ecologically, and morally.”

Waldron, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge, delivered a similar message.

“Our report shows that protection in today’s economy brings in more revenue than the alternatives and likely adds revenue to agriculture and forestry, while helping prevent climate change, water crises, biodiversity loss, and disease,” he said. “Increasing nature protection is sound policy for governments juggling multiple interests. You cannot put a price tag on nature—but the economic numbers point to its protection.”

The report comes ahead of the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was supposed to be held in Kunming, China this October but has been delayed until next year due to the pandemic. As CFN noted Wednesday, the CBD included the 30% protected area goal in its draft 10-year strategy that is expected to be finalized at next year’s meeting.

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