Let it grow: the 30x30 pledge to protect biodiversity

Nearly 200 countries have signed a deal to conserve 30% of land and seas by the year 2030 – how will this be regulated and what does it mean for the built environment?


  • Greg Scruggs

18 July 2023

Consider the fields or plains on the outskirts of a city. A potentially convenient place to construct a new housing estate, but in the UK developing so-called greenfield sites is a hot-button issue in the quest to build 300,000 new homes each year.

Critics contend that greenfield development creates isolated communities away from existing infrastructure like transport links and costs more to provide with public services. Brownfield sites, which have already seen some measure of development, are preferable for new construction, but working from a blank slate is often easier than shoehorning new buildings into an existing footprint.

Greenfield developments, however, are about to face another hurdle. That grassy field is now potentially part of the UK’s efforts to halt global biodiversity loss. Last year the UK joined more than 190 countries in making the 30x30 pledge to protect at least 30% of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030.

In a landscape like the UK, a grassy field takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of biodiversity. “British short grasslands are rich in wildflowers,” says Andy Plumptre, head of the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat at the University of Cambridge. “They can look like a boring green field but they can be quite important for species of plants like orchids because not too much nitrogen has been put down in the soil.”

So, what exactly is the 30x30 pledge and how did it come to be?

Scientists are sounding the alarm about an ongoing extinction crisis, as human activities from pollution to logging to transporting invasive species destroy habitats and disrupt ecosystems. In 2016, American conservationist Edward O Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, a manifesto calling for humans to put under conservation half of the world’s lands and waters in the name of biodiversity.

Advocacy efforts led by the National Geographic Society and the Wyss Campaign for Nature began working toward that goal. To reach 50%, what if the world set a goal of 40% by 2040 or 30% by 2030? Since 2030 is already the deadline to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, looking ahead to the end of this decade provided a convenient timeline.

Safeguarding global biodiversity

The global community already has a mechanism for collective action to safeguard biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity is a treaty signed by 196 states (the US is a notable exception) that entered into force in 1993. The treaty’s signatories meet regularly to review progress and set updated goals. At the most recent gathering in December 2022, the 15th Conference of Parties, or COP15, convened at the treaty secretariat’s headquarters in Montreal and agreed on a landmark path forward for the rest of the decade: the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

This pact has been heralded as something akin to the Paris Agreement for nature. But while the Paris Agreement kickstarted a global effort to inventory and reduce carbon emissions – including in the built environment – it’s unclear if the new biodiversity accord will have the same transformative effect on private industry. The 30x30 commitment, number three of the agreement’s 23 targets, is the component that has attracted the most attention.

The Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping mean global temperature rise below 1.5ºC of pre-industrial levels has hard consequences – warm faster than that, we are told, and the risks for humanity become exponentially worse. The 30x30 commitment’s conservation targets are more aspirational.

“It’s an arbitrary target for an arbitrary date, but it provides an incentive for people to do more for nature,” says Gary Tabor, president of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, based in Montana, US. “In fragmenting our landscapes, we’re undermining the resource base that supports human endeavours. We can’t just whittle it away.”

The UK made the 30x30 pledge in 2020, just two years after the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme, or ELMS. This scheme governs payments to farmers and rural landowners to balance conservation with other land uses like agriculture and timber. As biodiversity measurements become more sophisticated, ELMS could take into account biodiversity value when calculating payments. In November, the UK government will start calculating “biodiversity net gain,” or how much a wildlife habitat improves over the course of development, under the Town and Country Planning Act.

“In fragmenting our landscapes, we’re undermining the resource base that supports human endeavours. We can’t just whittle it away” Gary Tabor, Center for Large Landscape Conservation

Parks don’t automatically mean biodiversity

Meanwhile, the UK already has a robust land designation system. And by some measures, England has already reached the 26% threshold in its conservation target. But a line on a paper map that delineates ‘conserved’ does not always mean that such conservation is in line with the 30x30 target.

“There are limitations to our designations,” says Hugo Remnant MRICS, a senior associate with Galbraith Group. “Our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are designated for visual reasons. They are not necessarily in particularly good condition for conservation and biodiversity reasons.”

When such values are taken into consideration, England’s conservation record looks more modest: a mere 3.22% of the country is “protected and effectively managed for nature,” according to Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Even if the UK reaches the 30% mark, Remnant cautions that property owners and managers should pay attention to the biodiversity potential in the other 70%. Whether cultivated for agriculture or built up as human settlements, they should not assume that the issue is sorted because 30% of the country’s land is being managed for nature.

“The whole movement could be a lot more powerful if we focus on the 70% at the same time,” he says.

But biodiversity professionals like Plumptre, who participated in crafting the language of the biodiversity agreement, point out that meeting the global 30x30 pledge is not as simple as each country conserving 30% of its own land and waters. Rather, the most important conservation will take place in biodiversity hotspots like the Andes, the Rift Valley and Borneo.

“Western countries where biodiversity isn’t as rich, like in northern Europe, could be funding conservation of sites in the tropics where biodiversity is much richer,” Plumptre says, envisioning a scenario where only 10% of the UK is conserved and managed for nature, but 50% of Ecuador is.

“Western countries where biodiversity isn’t as rich could be funding conservation of sites in the tropics where biodiversity is much richer” Andy Plumptre, Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat

An important role for surveyors

Where does that leave the surveying profession? While the biodiversity debate has focused largely on the 30x30 commitment, Plumptre points to the agreement’s first target, for every country to develop spatial plans by 2030, as most relevant to surveyors. 

First, there are potentially opportunities for GIS specialists to work in less developed countries that are embarking on this exercise for the first time. Second, clear delineations of key biodiversity areas will provide clarity for the private sector. It is increasingly facing pressure to inventory its biodiversity footprint, similar to its carbon footprint, when planning new operations.

So far, however, it’s extractive companies like oil and mining, more so than the property sector, seeking such guidance. “Frustrated companies say all the time, ‘We want a map that says where we can and can’t go,’” says Plumptre.


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