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Leveraging 30x30 through partnerships and co-benefits

Leveraging 30x30 through partnerships and co-benefits
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The Biden administration will soon release its strategy for the recent executive order to conserve at least 30 percent of the nation’s lands and oceans by 2030.  

Like the previously introduced Senate Resolution 372 and House Resolution 835, the 30x30 initiative aligns with recommendations from the scientific and environmental communities to protect 30 to 50 percent of the planet. The initiative can meaningfully increase the quality and quantity of natural areas in the U.S., considering only 12 percent of the roughly 28 percent of federal lands are permanently protected from development and other intensive use.  

Why do we need the 30x30 initiative? Current levels of land and ocean protection have not prevented the continued loss and deterioration of ecosystems, nor has it stopped the steep declines in fish, birds, pollinators and other species. And 30x30 is as much about safeguarding human health and wellbeing as it is about protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. After all, we depend directly and indirectly upon ecosystems to support our health, safety, security, prosperity and happiness.  

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The real work of 30x30 is yet to come. The straightforward simplicity of the initiative’s goal contrasts sharply with the necessary complexity of decisions that will be required to bring it to fruition while delivering the greatest return on investment in terms of social and ecological co-benefits. A co-benefit describes a benefit or positive outcome that goes beyond the primary aim of a course of action. With so many ways to meet the 30x30 target, we can choose to protect places that simply get us to 30 percent, or we can choose places that also serve other purposes, like addressing health disparities, reducing exposure to pollutants, improving water or food security, making nature more accessible, or diversifying income streams in rural economies. Incorporating co-benefits is particularly important given that targets cannot be met solely with federal lands and, therefore, must accommodate other forms of land ownership.  

The Biden administration has already taken an essential first step that will facilitate the integration of co-benefits; they have engaged diverse stakeholders in the planning process. Engagement can reveal community needs, identify key co-benefits, leverage ongoing conservation activities and create partnerships that move the initiative forward. Partnerships will be instrumental to realizing co-benefits and overcoming one of the initiative’s greatest implementation challenges — doing more with less.

Doing more with less requires that we find creative ways to optimize among a wide variety of co-benefits and opportunity costs. Until recently, the massive amount of information needed to support optimization has been lacking, partly due to limited human and fiscal resources. However, crowd-sourced or community science data products, like the eBird project my colleagues and I lead at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, transform the landscape and provide a path forward. Citizens can engage with scientists to generate valuable data assets, and scientists can work with decision-makers to create innovative metrics to help plan, implement and monitor outcomes.  

Another way to do more with less is to partner with private sector actors who can contribute cash, in-kind, or intellectual support for conservation interventions, incentive programs and new methods to track progress. Already public-private partnerships are being developed to fund conservation activities on private land through payments by corporate partners interested in meeting their own Environment, Social and Governance standards (ESG) or other commitments to sustainability. The Ecosystem Services Marketplace Consortium is one such partnership that compensates farmers and ranchers who adopt practices that promote equitable, just and environmentally-sustainable food systems. 

While the motivations of certain actors can be met with skepticism, we stand to gain from the private sector’s growing appetite to be more sustainable. The interest is there. With one-third of professionally managed investments in the U.S. already linked to corporate ESGs, there is strong potential to finance conservation projects by attracting investors motivated by personal ethics, corporate responsibility, stable supply chains and business opportunities in the green economy. Support is available from the Coalition for the Private Investment in Conservation, a global multi-stakeholder initiative that aims to facilitate, replicate and scale investable conservation projects by developing blueprints for financial transaction structures. The more that conservation leaders can engage with business and financial institutions, the better they can identify how the private sector can contribute to 30x30 goals as they work towards their own sustainability commitments.  

The thoughtful leadership of the Biden administration was responsible for the 30x30 commitment, but partnerships will be key to achieving its goals. As the administration moves forward, they can look to partners in scientific, conservation and private sectors, who stand ready and able to contribute expertise, resources and data to support this urgent initiative.

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.