Conservation Science at a Crossroad

The world’s governments are meeting with leading conservation organisations and experts to develop the global conservation strategy for the next decade (2021-2030). There are four main perspectives on what path we should take, which have been fuelling heated debates amongst scientists and conservation professionals in the recent years.

To address the current global environmental crisis, we need to act now. A key way to act is through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a legally-binding, multilateral treaty with 196 signatory states. The latest plan launched in 2011 will conclude at the end of this year. A new plan for the next decade was due to be discussed later this year but will now be debated next year because of the COVID-19 situation. A main focus of the new plan will be on protected areas, which were already a key topic of the last (current) plan (i.e., the Aichi Target 11, requiring the protection of 17% and 10% of global terrestrial and marine landscapes, respectively). To date, 15% and 8% of global terrestrial and marine areas have been protected, respectively.

In a paper published in Conservation Biology this month1, a group of international scientists explored four different perspectives on conservation science (i.e., Aichi+, Ambitious area-based conservation, New Conservation, and Whole Earth) emerging from ongoing philosophical/scientific debates, which may influence the drafting of the next decade’s conservation policies. Their analysis was focused specifically on understanding the emphasis that protected areas should be given in the 2021-2030 CBD strategic plan, according to the different perspectives.


Proponents of this view argue that the current objective of protecting 17 and 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial and marine areas respectively should remain unchanged and not raised to higher percentages in the 2021-2030 plan. The principle is that of “quality over quantity”. According to this perspective, emphasis should be placed on enhancing landscape connectivity and protecting areas with high conservation value. The risk of focusing too much on percentages is that governments may establish protected areas where it is more convenient for them to do so on socio-political grounds, overlooking other sites that would instead be more important to protect. This already appears to be the case for some marine protected areas. Scientists supporting this view also consider sites with restricted human access but without a “protected area” label, such as historical shipwrecks or military grounds, as other ways of conserving nature, and they accordingly encourage more cooperation with a wide range of stakeholders. Nonetheless, this view would leave us with a deeper dilemma, some critics argue. That is, which areas should we conserve and why? For example, different landscapes would require protection depending on whether aspects of biodiversity or ecosystem services are prioritised.

Example of how conservation planning would lead to the selection of different areas depending on the selected priority attributes, using the example of Tanzania. (a) 50% protection based on high levels of biodiversity, and (b) 50% protection based on high levels of ecosystem services provision. Figure credits: 1

Ambitious area-based conservation

Advocates of this view want to increase the percentage of land that governments should commit to protect globally as part of the 2021-2030 plan. Two notable movements that support this idea are “Nature Needs Half” and “Half Earth”, which want to protect 30% of the Earth by 2030 and 50% by 2050 to protect biodiversity and its benefits. While there is evidence that intact landscapes and seascapes provide important refugia for biodiversity and are also the most resilient parts of ecosystems to climate change impacts, these views are criticised for failing to account for the social impacts of protected areas. Previous studies have suggested that billions of people, and especially those living in the global south, would be displaced or affected by such policies.

New Conservation

Supporters of this view propose that arguments to protect nature for its intrinsic value are insufficient on their own to raise enough funds and drive significant socio-political efforts to conserve nature. For this reason, nature should be advertised to the public and policymakers as a Natural Capital which provides us with enormous ecosystem services and economic returns. According to this view, nature should be conserved in partnership with the private sector, making use of capitalist and neo-liberal tools such as the free market. This approach is criticised because of its anthropocentrism, as it fails to recognise the moral values which have underpinned nature conservation thus far. The risk is also that, according to this view, the less profitable ecosystems, habitats and species will likely be doomed. Some critics also argue it would hardly be possible to maximise both economic and ecological outcomes, and that if even conservationists started to prioritise economic aspects then the overexploitation of ecosystems will almost become inevitable.

Whole Earth

Proponents of this vision argue that biodiversity loss can be reversed only by tackling its underlying drivers. These are resource extraction and overconsumption, which are in turn caused by capitalism and societal issues such as inequality. This view foresees a shift away from focusing on protecting landscapes and minimising anthropogenic influence to promoting programmes of regulation and redistribution to equalise resource use. However, critics fear that understating the importance of protecting landscapes for nature conservation may risk to undermine the extensive conservation efforts that have resulted in positive gains for biodiversity and people in the recent past. Adopting such perspective may mean sacrificing, once for all, interspecies justice (i.e., the existence of other species) for intraspecies justice (i.e., justice for people), critics argue.

“Ultimately, the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework is a process of negotiation amongst nation states who will draw on advice provided to them”, conclude the authors of the paper, hoping that by elucidating the main perspectives currently fuelling debates they can facilitate agreement and aid the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity targets.

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  1. Bhola N., Klimmek H., Kingston N., Burgess N.D., van Soesbergen A., Corrigan C., Harrison J., Kok M.T.J., 2020. Perspectives on area-based conservation and what it means for the post-2020 biodiversity policy agenda. Conservation Biology. (manuscript accepted for publication)

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