by Reinout Debergh
What is the 30 by 30 target?
On January 27th 2021, US president Joe Biden signed an executive order involving a series of actions to tackle the climate crisis. One such action directs his administration to devise strategies, in cooperation with key stakeholders, on how to preserve 30% of US lands and waters by 2030 .
So why 30%? In 2019, conservation scientists advocated to protect 50% of the planet. 30% would serve as a stepping stone towards reaching 50% by 2050 [2, 3]. This is not the first time the goal has been debated among US politicians. On October 22nd, 2019 senator Udall from New Mexico introduced a resolution in the Senate urging the federal government to set a target of conserving at least 30% of its lands and waters by 2030 . On February 6th, 2020, then senator for New Mexico and now Secretary of the Interior Haaland, did the same in the House .
Why is it important?
- In 2019, a UN report warned that as a result of human pressures, one million species could near extinction within the next few years, adversely affecting human beings and other life .
- We urgently need to reduce our emissions to mitigate the climate crisis . Land conservation and management has significant potential to contribute to climate change mitigation and is often cheaper and faster than other mitigation methods [3, 8].
- Unequal access to wild spaces including their mental and physical health benefits is a significant environmental justice issue . This particularly affects racially and economically marginalized communities such as people of color, disabled and LGBTQ+ .
How close are we to the target?
Currently, only about 12% of US land and 26% of its coastal waters are conserved in a manner that meets the 30 by 30 target. Thus while the US is on track to reach the 30% for its waters, when it comes to its lands, it’s another matter. In order to reach 30%, an additional 440 million acres or about 1.8 million km² needs to be protected . This corresponds to twice the size of Texas or five times the size of Germany [11, 12].
Figure 1. Currently protected areas in the US .
Figure 2. A significant additional amount of land needs to be protected .
What are the challenges and how do we overcome them?
This ecological concept refers to the need to protect at least some of every major ecosystem . It is not enough to just randomly pick some land or allocate the 30% to one region, it matters which 30% is chosen . How do we choose what type of land to consider protecting? This should be a science-driven effort based on indicators related to biodiversity (e.g. where do endangered species live) and climate mitigation (how much carbon can this land store). Though social factors should also play a role as will be shown next.
2) Environmental and racial justice
The establishment of the first national parks Yosemite or Yellowstone went together with the displacement, massacre and assimilation of Native Americans . A lot of scepticism and distrust can be expected. Therefore, including indigenous people from the start is essential to create trust. That Haaland herself is Native American might also help .
Secondly, 74% of communities of colour have less access to nature compared to the state median. For white people that is only 23% . When selecting areas to conserve, this inequality should be considered.
3) Private land ownership
Around 70% of US land is owned by individuals or companies . Therefore dialogue with private landowners and farmers will be necessary. While 75% of voters in five Western states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Nevada) support the target, those states have relatively high shares of federal land [14, 15]. In states with little federal land such as Nebraska (1%), opposition exists due to concerns of land grabs and federal overreach [14, 16]. Clarity and transparency can help overcome opposition. Another option are conservation easements, which are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust or government agency. This limits the use of land and offers financial benefits for the landowner . Almost 33 million acres is now conserved through such easements . However, many of them do not have public access .
86% of voters somewhat or strongly support the 30 by 30 goal, including 76% of Republican voters. So partisanship does not seem a significant problem at first. However, things can change and if Trump, or someone like him, would be (re)elected, that could be problematic as Trump is ‘the only president in U.S. history to have removed more public lands than he protected’ . Secondly, executive orders can be easily overturned by subsequent presidents as Biden has done with some of Trump’s . Similarly, while Biden can use the Antiquities Act to designate monuments on land or sea without congressional approval, a future president can undo it . Maintaining broad voter support and congressional action are needed to maintain the 30 by 30 effort beyond a single presidential term.
Conserving 30% of US lands and waters will cost money and lots of it. The National Park Service wants to buy 1.6 million acres of land. But that alone would cost USD 2 billion. To get to 30%, 250 times that amount of land is needed . Funding will have to be found either from private sources or from public sources such as taxes or redirecting environmentally harmful subsidies. Some funding could come from the infrastructure plan . Direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the US are estimated at about USD 20 billion per year .
Overall, it is clear that it is going to be a challenge to reach the 30 by 30 goal. But it is a highly important goal and reaching it would make a significant difference. Key aspects will be cooperation with key stakeholders, transparency, continuous government support beyond single presidential terms and funding.
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