This year I spent International Women’s day out in the field with students and some amazing (female) colleagues. I sadly missed the annual Tasmanian Land Conservancy Women in Conservation event – but instead got to do some live women in conservation activities like field surveys for caged and un-caged Eucalyptus saplings to determine if caging is a successful strategy to protect saplings from deer damage and wallaby browsing. Is there any better way to celebrate great conservation science and International Women’s day than in nature?
Photo credit Peter Allen University of Tasmania: Women in Conservation – Kerry Bridle, Vanessa Adams, and Karen Johnson surveying Eucalyptus seedlings and saplings on a conservation property in the Midlands.
Refuges from an ecological perspective are defined as those places that are safe havens for species and habitats – more formally we tend to identify them as habitats that convey spatial and temporal resistance and/or resilience to biotic communities affected by disturbances. Refuges are garnering a large amount of attention in the conservation literature as we begin to observe accelerating climate impacts on biodiversity and are often prioritised for protection as places that are no regret options for investment. How to best protect species now and into the future is a big question that I am often confronted when supporting conservation planning for jurisdictions (e.g. we included climate refugia as a key conservation feature when planning with PNG, and more recently we’ve been grappling with this in Tasmania and what climate resilience might look like for private reserves).
Interestingly – refuges have played a similar role or definition in the human risk analysis and management literature. Refuges have been proposed as a means of ensuring that at least some people survive a global catastrophe. While it would be better to avoid the catastrophe in the first place, if a catastrophe is to occur, a refuge could be a real difference-maker in terms of the long-term effects on human civilization. Prior global catastrophe refuges research emphasizes highly isolated locations such as islands (also great refuges for biodiversity so I guess humans and biodiversity have some shared characteristics in their refuge needs). My friend, family member, and now valued colleague Seth Baum of GCRI grapples with these questions in his global catastrophe work.
Through varied ponderings we discovered this concept of refuges overlap in our respective disciplines and our own lived experiences during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted us to think more seriously about how to define, identify, and leverage the refuge concept as a politically viable policy response to global catastrophes. This work led to a paper which we co-authored in the journal of Risk Analysis.
Whether COVID-19 classifies as a global catastrophe is a matter of interpretation. It is certainly a global event that has had catastrophic effects for many people. However, as the paper shows, it does not meet the criteria of most published definitions of global catastrophe. Nonetheless, as an extremely severe global event, it provides a rare and important source of evidence for the study of global catastrophic risk. (See also the GCRI Statement on the COVID-19 Pandemic.)
During the first two years of COVID-19, several political jurisdictions have effectively served as refuges by maintaining a very low spread of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. Some of these jurisdictions have sought to avoid any transmission of SARS-CoV-2, a policy sometimes known as “zero COVID”. Residents of these jurisdictions were able to live relatively normal lives without risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Furthermore, in the event that the pandemic were to prove overwhelmingly catastrophic for other jurisdictions, these refuges could offer a survivor population.
Prior research on refuges for pandemics focused on island nations on grounds that their geographic isolation and political unity would make them effective places for avoiding the pandemic pathogen. During the first two years of COVID-19, some island nations have served as refuges; Australia and New Zealand are examples. However, this paper shows that other jurisdictions can also succeed as refuges.
The paper studies two jurisdictions with especially low spread of COVID-19: China and Western Australia. China is the most populous country in the world, with extensive and heavily populated land borders with other countries. Western Australia is sub-national jurisdiction that is connected by land to the rest of the country, although the land connection is a sparsely populated desert. The two jurisdictions differ in other respects: China is authoritarian and has a collectivist culture, whereas Western Australia is democratic and has an individualist culture. Nonetheless, both jurisdictions have a high degree of political centralization and capacity for isolation. During the pandemic, both have also been highly motivated to avoid pathogen spread. Together, the cases provide a more nuanced understanding of the sorts of jurisdictions that can succeed as refuges for pandemics and perhaps also for other global catastrophe scenarios.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. As the pandemic continues to unfold, more will be learned about refuges and other topics of relevance to global catastrophic risk. Indeed, several significant events occurred while the paper was under peer review, including China’s struggle to contain the new Omicron variant and Western Australia’s decision to open its borders. In fact, as I sit here writing this blog the ‘refuge endgame’ is the next big question for me. What does an optimal or even mildly successful exit from refuge status look like (and how do we define success in order to guide optimal policy design)? We are living a natural experiment which provides the conditions by which to evaluate successful policies and to learn from them for future pandemics and other global catastrophes.
I was reminded that International Women’s Day is Tuesday March 8th and this year’s theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow“. What a great theme. It made me think about my own role as a female scientist and the types of events I like to host and participate in that hopefully address gender bias but also more broadly contribute to improving the environment around us. Late last year I was honored to receive Tasmanian Young Tall Poppy of the Year award (learn more about the Tall Poppy campaign and the 2021 Young Tall Poppy award winners here https://aips.net.au/tall-poppy-campaign/young-tall-poppy-of-the-year-01/). I made the video below as part of the campaign and thought it was a nice way to talk about how I contribute to a sustainable tomorrow.
One Earth posed the interesting question of what should be the priorities for biomass:
“Plant biomass is the basis of our diets and ecosystems, and a promising renewable source of energy and materials. The demand for biomass is increasing, but space limits our capacity to deliver enough biomass to meet food security, bioeconomy, and conservation targets, and climate change threatens productivity further. This Voices asks: which should be the priorities for plant biomass and what are the main limits to achieve them?”
I enjoyed pondering this and adding my ‘voice’ alongside some other interesting perspectives. I posit that it’s not an either or but ultimately about multiple objective planning with shared goals. And ultimately halting land degradation is critical for addressing the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change and can (if we plan smartly) address sustainable food production.
We are collectively failing to conserve the world’s biodiversity and to mobilize natural solutions to help curb global warming. A new study carried out by the Nature Map Consortium, shows that managing a strategically placed 30% of land for conservation could safeguard 70% of all considered terrestrial plant and vertebrate animal species, while simultaneously conserving more than 62% of the world’s above and below ground vulnerable carbon, and 68% of all clean water.
In November, governments will convene in Glasgow under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Natural climate solutions for mitigation and adaptation will be high on the agenda, as illustrated by the recent G7 Nature Compact and the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature signed by 88 heads of government. In 2022, China will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to agree a new Global Biodiversity Framework, including proposed targets to conserve at least 30% of land and the ocean by 2030 and to apply integrated biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning to address land- and sea-use change.
To stop the decline of nature and meet the Paris Agreement objectives, strategies need to be designed and implemented for better managing land use for agriculture, infrastructure, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, water provision, and other needs. As underscored by the draft Global Biodiversity Framework and current efforts in Costa Rica, China, and other countries, this requires spatial planning to assess where biodiversity conservation would bring the greatest benefits to other policy objectives.
To support such integrated strategies, a paper by the Nature Map consortium just published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution presents an approach for spatial planning. The paper set out to determine areas of global importance to manage for conservation to simultaneously protect the greatest number of species from extinction, conserve vulnerable terrestrial carbon stocks, and safeguard freshwater resources. This effort is the first of its kind to truly integrate biodiversity, carbon, and water conservation within a common approach and a single global priority map. Another distinct novelty of the work is the consideration of a comprehensive set of plant distribution data (about 41% of all plant species) in the analyses, and the setting of species targets for extinction risk.
“To implement post-2020 biodiversity strategies such as the Global Biodiversity Framework, policymakers and governments need clarity on where resources and conservation management could bring the greatest potential benefits to biodiversity. At the same time, biodiversity should not be looked at in isolation. Other aspects such as conserving carbon stocks within natural ecosystems should be considered alongside biodiversity, so that synergies and trade-offs can be evaluated when pursuing multiple objectives,” explains lead author Martin Jung, a researcher in the IIASA Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group.
“The new global priority maps developed as part of the study show that when it comes to identifying new areas to manage for conservation, such as protected areas or community-managed forests, quality (location and management effectiveness) is more important than quantity (global extent). To aim for quality of conservation and achieve the goal of safeguarding biodiversity, government and non-government agencies should be setting objectives and indicators for what they want: conserving species, healthy ecosystems and their services to people, and identify areas to conserve accordingly. Our study provides guidance on how to do that,” adds study coauthor Piero Visconti who leads the Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group at IIASA.
Credit: Adam Islaam | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
The researchers note that conserving a strategically located 30% of land could yield major gains for conservation, climate, and water provisioning. Specifically, it would safeguard more than 62% of the world’s above and below ground vulnerable carbon and 68% of all fresh water, while ensuring that over 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate and plant species are not threatened with extinction. As the work shows, meeting these objectives will require strategic placement of conservation interventions using spatial planning tools like Nature Map and, crucially, require enabling their stewards to effectively manage these areas.
“This type of approach can support decision makers in prioritizing locations for conservation efforts, and shows just how much both people and nature could gain. To be successful long-term, these areas must be managed effectively and equitably. That includes respecting the rights of, and empowering indigenous peoples and local communities,” says co-author Lera Miles, Principal Technical Specialist – Planning for Places, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).
The study demonstrates that optimizing jointly for biodiversity, carbon, and water maximizes synergies that can be gained from conservation compared to placing emphasis on any individual asset alone. Through strategic action in selected locations, significant benefits can be achieved across all three dimensions. Conservation efforts however need to be greatly scaled-up by all actors in society to meet global biodiversity and climate objectives.
Jung points out that the analysis identifies the upper potential value of any given area to be managed for conservation at global scale. The team by no means suggests or implies that all areas with high value are to be placed under strict protection, recognizing that these management choices are decided by national and local stakeholders.
The team’s analyses also quantitatively confirm many areas earlier described as biodiversity hotspots, which were previously based on expert opinion alone. By including selected data of the global tree of life that have so far been ignored in global prioritizations – such as reptiles and plants – the team identified new areas to be considered as important for biodiversity at a global scale. These include, for instance, the southeastern United States and the Balkans. The research has also been useful in updating and improving the information on all areas of global importance for biodiversity conservation.
“Our methods, data, and the global priority maps are meant to be used as a decision support tool for major conservation initiatives. Furthermore, the study lays the groundwork for a new generation of integrated prioritizations and planning exercises that all actors can use to inform conservation choices at the regional, national and sub-national levels,” Jung concludes.
The global priority maps can be explored interactively on the UN Biodiversity lab to support decision makers and generate insight and impact for conservation and sustainable development.
Jung, M., Arnell, A., de Lamo, X., García-Rangel, S., Lewis, M., Mark, J., Merow, C., Miles, L., et al. (2021). Areas of global importance for conserving terrestrial biodiversity, carbon, and water. Nature Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01528-7
* The Nature Map project was launched by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS), the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Other partners include Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN), Global Assessment of Reptile Distributions (GARD), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), iNaturalist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, OpenLandMap, the UN Biodiversity Lab, and SYSTEMIQ Ltd. The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment (KLD) provides financial support.