On October 7, California Governor Gavin Newsom took the bold step of committing the state to a goal of protecting 30 percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.
The move makes a lot of sense for California. It is a global biodiversity hotspot because of its unique plant diversity, and harbors rich and productive marine ecosystems. But this bounty is threatened by the confluence of the climate crisis, overexploitation and development. Its latest manifestation has been the apocalyptic fires that have burned more than four million acres.
California has very old trees, including the giant sequoias that are over 3,000 years old. There’s been a lot of fires in those 3,000 years, but the ancient forests survived, because fire was part of the ecology of the system. But the forests could not survive the human assault. Logging these natural treasures started a chain of events that led to the present fires, exacerbated by the heat waves caused by global warming.
The solution to the current crisis is protecting the wild, and restoring and rewilding degraded lands and coasts, in partnership with Indigenous Peoples. A commitment to 30 percent by 2030 — ‘30x30’ — is a great way to start.
This will preserve and bring back valuable biodiversity that provide multiple benefits to California. Forests release moisture into the atmosphere and help produce rain, helping to reduce the risk of fires. Intact forests, meadows and grasslands absorb rainwater and snowmelt, slowly releasing it during the summer months, while filtering the water. They also capture large amounts of carbon pollution from the atmosphere, thus helping to mitigate climate change.
In California’s ocean, kelp forests provide the habitats for many species of fish and invertebrates of commercial importance, while also capturing carbon dioxide, reducing the acidity of seawater, and providing a barrier that protects the shores.
Protected areas have been shown to restore biodiversity, but the recovery of ecosystems can be accelerated via the reintroduction of native animals. Large herbivores such as bison can regenerate grasslands through their grazing and moving around, improving their ability to capture carbon. Beavers create ponds that attract many other species — amphibians, fish, otters and birds — and create "wet spots" of surrounding vegetation that resist fires. Sea otters eat sea urchins, which are voracious eaters of kelp that have been turning kelp forests into barren grounds. Sea otters means less sea urchins and more kelp forests— along with all the species they harbor.
Yet, while Newsom’s visionary move is admirable, he is not alone. A coalition of dozens of leading international environmental and scientific groups developed the science-based 30x30 global target years ago as an interim step to safeguarding half of the planet in its natural state, to counter climate change, and to end our worsening biodiversity crisis.
As a practical matter, 30x30 is effective, achievable and cost-effective. A recent report by 100 academics and economists found that protecting a third of our lands and oceans would cost less than the world spends today on video games. Still better, every dollar invested by the government in our National Parks produces $10 in economic output.
More importantly, however, it has the sort of ample global support that could make it real. Recent endorsers include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, European Union Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, HRH The Prince of Wales, and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. These are only a few of the most notable among those from government and industry who say they support an end to the destruction of nature and a halt to the decline in biodiversity that imperil our way of life.
These leaders do not support 30x30 because they are radical conservationists. They do not do it for fashion. They do it because they know that protecting our life support system makes the most sense, including long-term economic sense.
While these significant actions by Newsom and others are ahead of the curve, they are only a start. Conservation doesn’t end once a protection is established. It takes careful management and significant funding to keep nature safe. 30x30 gets us there.
As these other global leaders and other supporters demonstrate, there is an indelible and undeniable link between nature, human health and the economic well-being of the world. It is time we did the right thing for our future, but more so, it is time we did the right thing for our present. By getting behind 30x30, we can make the world a better, healthier place, and we can do it in our lifetimes. If we don’t, there may not be any lifetimes left to be had.
Dr. Enric Sala, a former professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, is National Geographic Explorer in Residence and author of “The Nature of Nature” Why We Need the Wild.”