Protecting just 17% of Earth's land would save 67% of plant species. Can we do it before it's too late?

map of areas with biodiversity conservation
via Clinton Jenkins, NC State University

A new study in the journal Science by researchers from Duke and North Carolina State University shows that humans are not protecting the right parts of the world if our goal is to conserve biological diversity. The researchers found that "67% of plant species live entirely within regions that comprise 17% of the land surface."

Motherboard's Jason Koebler puts the findings in context:

In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity (an international treaty with 193 member countries--the US signed but never ratified the treaty, shocker) set a goal to protect 17 percent of Earth's most biodiverse land by 2020. By doing that, they argued, we're be protecting roughly 60 percent of all of the planet's plant species.
If we're looking only at the numbers, Earth as a whole isn't too far off from meeting that 17 percent goal. The only problem, according to the authors, is we're protecting the wrong areas (if we're looking to preserve biodiversity). As of 2009, about 13 percent of all of Earth's land was protected in some way. But a lot of that land is not terribly important, biodiversity-wise.

But the solution is not as simple as identifying the most important areas to protect, as Koebler explains:

...for the most part, the areas he proposes protecting are in developing countries that are using the land to help pull themselves out of poverty—whether that's by planting tons of palm trees for palm oil sales or extracting oil. Some of the areas Pimm proposes protecting are entirely populated islands, which is also problematic because human development is, at least in modern times, inherently destructive to the environment.

The study puts some statistics behind things that are inherently intuitive: The rain forests are important. But as countries like Ecuador want an increasing part of the global economic pie, the rest of the world is going to have to find a way to convince them not to take advantage of their existing natural resources.

Just as we've seen with the challenge of moving to cleaner forms of energy, it is not easy for the developed world to tell up-and-coming nations what they can not or should not do in their efforts to grow their economies.

While there is a moral and practical justification for protecting these areas, it seems the only way we are going to convince countries like Ecuador to leave these areas undeveloped and protected is if the global community can agree on their importance and pool enough resources to make it financially worth their while. These efforts failed in Ecuador. That doesn't mean the global community can't and shouldn't try again.

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