Last chance to save world’s wilder­ness

Ev­ery na­tion needs to man­date global con­ser­va­tion tar­get

The New Zealand Herald - - News - James Al­lan, James Wat­son, Jas­mine Lee, Ken­dall Jones — The Con­ver­sa­tion

Just 20 coun­tries are home to 94 per cent of the world’s re­main­ing wilder­ness, ex­clud­ing the high seas and Antarc­tica, ac­cord­ing to our global wilder­ness map, pub­lished in Na­ture.

A cen­tury ago, wilder­ness ex­tended over most of the planet. To­day, only 23 per cent of land — ex­clud­ing Antarc­tica — and 13 per cent of the ocean are free from the harm­ful im­pacts of hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties.

More than 70 per cent of re­main­ing wilder­ness is in just five coun­tries: Aus­tralia, Rus­sia, Canada, the United States (Alaska), and Brazil.

We ar­gue that wilder­ness can still be saved. But suc­cess will de­pend on the steps these “mega-wilder­ness na­tions” take.

Wilder­ness ar­eas are vast tracts of un­tamed and un­mod­i­fied land and sea. From the low­land rain­forests of Pa­pua New Guinea, to the high taiga forests of Rus­sia’s Arc­tic, to in­land Aus­tralia’s vast deserts, to the great mix­ing zones of the Pa­cific, Antarc­tic and In­dian Oceans — these ar­eas are the last strongholds for en­dan­gered species, and per­form vi­tal func­tions such as stor­ing car­bon, and buffer­ing us against cli­mate-change ef­fects.

In many wilder­ness ar­eas, indigenous peo­ples, of­ten the most po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally marginalised of all, de­pend on them for their liveli­hoods and cul­tures.

Yet de­spite be­ing im­por­tant and threat­ened, wilder­ness ar­eas and their val­ues are over­looked in in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy. In the main, wilder­ness is not for­mally de­fined, mapped or pro­tected, so there is noth­ing to hold na­tions, in­dus­try, so­ci­ety and com­mu­nity to ac­count for it.

Be­yond boundaries

Al­most two-thirds of marine wilder­ness is in the high seas, be­yond na­tions’ im­me­di­ate con­trol. Ef­fec­tively, it’s a marine wild west, where fish­ing fleets have a free-forall. There are some laws to man­age high-seas fish­ing, but no legally bind­ing agree­ment gov­ern­ing high­seas con­ser­va­tion, al­though the UN is ne­go­ti­at­ing such a treaty. En­sur­ing marine wilder­ness is off-lim­its to ex­ploita­tion will be cru­cial.

And we can­not for­get Antarc­tica, arguably Earth’s great­est re­main­ing wilder­ness and one of the last places where vast re­gions have never ex­pe­ri­enced a hu­man foot­fall.

While Antarc­tica’s iso­la­tion and ex­treme cli­mate have helped pro­tect it from the degra­da­tion ex­pe­ri­enced else­where, cli­mate change, hu­man ac­tiv­ity, pol­lu­tion, and in­va­sive species threaten its wildlife and wilder­ness. Par­ties to the Antarc­tic Treaty must act to help re­duce hu­man im­pacts, and we must curb global car­bon emis­sions be­fore it is too late to save Antarc­tica.

Our maps show how lit­tle wilder­ness is left, and how much has been lost. Be­tween 1993 and 2009, 3.3 mil­lion sq km of ter­res­trial wilder­ness — an area larger than In­dia — was lost to hu­man set­tle­ment, farm­ing, mining and other pres­sures.

In the ocean, the only re­gions free of in­dus­trial fish­ing, pol­lu­tion and ship­ping are con­fined to the poles or re­mote Pa­cific is­land na­tions.

Sav­ing wilder­ness

Al­most ev­ery na­tion has signed in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal agree­ments that aim to end the bio­di­ver­sity cri­sis, halt dan­ger­ous cli­mate change, and achieve global sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment goals. The re­main­ing wilder­ness can only be se­cured if its im­por­tance is recog­nised within these agree­ments.

At a sum­mit in Egypt this month, the 196 sig­na­tory na­tions to the Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity will work along­side sci­en­tists on de­vel­op­ing a strate­gic plan for con­ser­va­tion be­yond 2020. This is a chance for all na­tions to recog­nise the is­sue, and to man­date a global tar­get for wilder­ness con­ser­va­tion.

A global tar­get of re­tain­ing 100 per cent of all re­main­ing wilder­ness is achiev­able. It would mean stop­ping mining, log­ging, and fish­ing from spread­ing. Com­mit­ting to it would make it eas­ier for gov­ern­ments and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions to lever­age fund­ing and mo­bilise ac­tion in na­tions that are still de­vel­op­ing eco­nom­i­cally.

Sim­i­larly, the role of wilder­ness in guard­ing against cli­mate change — such as by stor­ing huge amounts of car­bon — could also be for­mally doc­u­mented in the UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change. This would en­cour­age na­tions to make wilder­ness pro­tec­tion cen­tral to cli­mate strate­gies.

Mech­a­nisms such as REDD+, which al­lows de­vel­op­ing na­tions to claim com­pen­sa­tion for con­serv­ing trop­i­cal forests, could be ex­tended to other car­bon-rich wilder­ness ar­eas such as in­tact sea­grasses, and even to wilder­nesses in rich coun­tries that do not re­ceive cli­mate aid, such as the Canadian tundra.

Na­tions can, via leg­is­la­tion and re­ward­ing good be­hav­iour, pre­vent road and ship­ping-lane ex­pan­sion, and en­force lim­its on big de­vel­op­ments and in­dus­trial fish­ing in their wilder­ness. They can also es­tab­lish pro­tected ar­eas to slow in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity’s spread into wilder­ness.

The planet faces not just a species ex­tinc­tion cri­sis, but a wilder­ness ex­tinc­tion cri­sis. If lost, wild places are gone for­ever. This may be our last chance to save the last of the wild. James Al­lan is a post­doc­toral re­search fel­low, James Wat­son isa pro­fes­sor, Jas­mine Lee is a PhD can­di­date, and Ken­dall Jones isa PhD can­di­date, all at the Univer­sity of Queens­land.

Antarc­tica will be un­der threat un­til global car­bon emis­sions are curbed.

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