From climate change to food security: how protected and conserved areas can tackle global challenges

Protected and conserved areas provide refuge for much of the world’s most precious wildlife - but these areas also offer vital solutions to some of today’s most pressing global challenges, including water scarcity, climate change, poverty and food insecurity.

From global to local scales, many of the benefits that nature provides to people – also known as ecosystem services – are provided by protected and conserved areas.  

The 2018 Protected Planet report, a flagship report produced by UNEP-WCMC and IUCN, concluded that protected and conserved areas need to be better integrated into national planning and decision making, to enhance positive outcomes to both biodiversity and people.

In advance of the next iteration of this biennial report, here are four ways that effectively and equitably managed protected and conserved areas can provide benefits to people all over the world: 

Clean Water

  • Many cities and towns worldwide draw their drinking water from a nearby protected area or conserved area. For example, Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, draws 80 per cent of its drinking water from Chingaza National Park. By providing people with safe and affordable drinking water, protected areas can help contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, Clean Water and Sanitation[JS3] .

Tackling climate change 

  • When effectively implemented, governed and managed, protected and conserved areas can help to mitigate climate change in relatively intact ecosystems through the sequestration  and storage of carbon. Protected areas on land have been estimated to account for approximately 20% of the carbon sequestered by all terrestrial ecosystems. Protected and conserved areas can also aid climate change adaptation, including by increasing resilience to storms and other natural hazards. 

Alleviating poverty

  • Effective and equitably managed protected and conserved areas can provide significant social and economic opportunities for local communities. For example, communities that rely on ecotourism as a source of income benefit greatly from coral reef protection, with 44% of coral reef tourism occurring within protected areas.

Food security

  • Through conserving a diversity of seeds, plants and animals, protected and conserved areas also contribute to SDG 2, Zero Hunger. Protected areas support crop breeding by maintaining the wild ancestors or close relatives of domesticated crops in situ. Maintaining this biodiversity is increasingly important to food security due to the pressure climate change is placing on existing varieties of crops.  

Global ambition and new biodiversity targets

Recent pledges from world leaders demonstrate positive ambition to expand protected and conserved area coverage in advance of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 in Kunming later this year, where it is expected that a new set of global biodiversity targets will be agreed as part of a “post-2020 global biodiveristy framework”.

However, attention at all scales needs to be given to the quality of protected and conserved areas, not just their quantity.

Research shows that existing protected areas are not currently reaching their full potential in terms of conservation outcomes. Almost 80 per cent of known threatened species and more than half of all ecosystems on land and sea remain without adequate protection.

This in turn has implications for the scale of the wider benefits that protected and conserved areas can contribute, and how effectively the global community can meet some of the major challenges we face. 

Effective and equitable protected and conserved areas

Successfully tackling biodiversity loss and safeguarding the benefits that nature brings to people requires protected and conserved areas to be effectively and equitably managed and governed.

A recent global review of protected areas found that to be more effective, area-based conservation efforts need to be better funded and made climate smart through restoration and adaptation measures. The effectiveness of protected and conserved areas also needs to be better tracked and monitored.

The review also found that support for nature conservation by indigenous peoples, community groups, and private entities could be better recognized and further mobilised. Over a quarter of the world’s land surface is estimated to be managed, occupied or otherwise used by indigenous peoples. The rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to manage lands, waters and resources (which are intrinsically linked to the conservation of biodiversity), need to be appropriately recognised and supported.  

By safeguarding important ecosystems and the benefits they provide, protected and conserved areas offer solutions to many challenges facing people across the world. More - and more effective - protected and conserved areas have the potential to bring further benefits to both people and nature. 

Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash.

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