Interview of the Week: Dr. Enric Sala of the National Geographic Society on #30×30
Dr. Enric Sala is a marine ecologist who has co-authored more than 120 publications, and an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, where he is dedicated to restoring the health and productivity of the ocean.
ODP: You moved from a very successful academic career to your current exploration and advocacy work at Nat Geo. Why did you make the jump?
ES: I had a great job, with an office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and loved doing the research. But because I was studying the impacts of humans (fishing, climate change) in the ocean, one day I realized I was just writing the obituary of the ocean. That was frustrating. I felt like the doctor who’s telling the patient how she’s going to die with excruciating detail, but without offering a cure. So I quit academia and spent a year thinking about the ways that I could have a positive impact on ocean conservation. I came up with the idea of Pristine Seas, a project to help save the last wild places in the ocean. I proposed it to the National Geographic Society. They loved it, and that is what I have been doing ever since.
ODP: Why is it so critical that we set aside 30% of the planet for the benefit of nature?
ES: The science is clear: if we are to prevent the extinction of up to a million species and the collapse of our life support system, and if we are to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement, we need half of the planet in natural state. And we can start by agreeing to protect at least 30% of the planet — land and sea — by 2030. Just like with climate change, we are in a ten-year race to set aside enough land and water that we can avoid the downward spiral caused by human impacts on nature — like habitat loss due to deforestation and agricultural development and land and water pollution that will collapse many ecosystems. Think of what is happening to coral reefs today — the coral dies but so do the entire communities of organisms that live in them.
ODP: How much of the planet is already protected? Is 30% do-able by 2030?
ES: Currently, 15 % of the land and 7 % of the ocean is in protected areas — but less than 3% of the ocean is fully protected from fishing and other extractive activities. The areas under protection have steadily increased during the last decade, but that has not been enough. Given the momentum we have seen I am confident that we can make this ambitious target — but we will need to work hard this year, in particular, to set that progress in motion.
ODP: Why is this year (2020) so important to the 30×30 effort?
ES: This is a “super year” for global agreements. Starting with the World Economic Forum in Davos last week and building from there. We are beginning to raise sufficient awareness among the public and leaders in business and government around the globe. The entire meeting in Davos was dedicated to sustainability. Then there will be a series of international meetings such as the UN Ocean Summit, the World Conservation Congress, the Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Climate Conference of the Parties meeting next November. Each of these meetings is an opportunity for leaders to take concrete steps individually and jointly to agree to preserve our life support system. Isn’t it ridiculous that we have to debate whether to agree to preserve what keeps us alive?? It’s because many people, mostly investors and corporate leaders (and the politicians they influence) act like they want to make as much money as possible in the casino of the Titanic – after hitting the iceberg.
ODP: Some countries like France and Costa Rica have already committed to the 30×30 target. Are you optimistic about the prospects for achieving this ambitious goal?
ES: I am optimistic because I see the momentum that is building now — and I can compare it to what I faced a decade ago when I started to work on conserving wild places. Since then we have been able to more than double the amount of ocean protected globally. I have been amazed by the way in which many heads of governments have stepped up and made huge commitments to conservation as their legacy. We have begun to create a race to the top for conservation. But we must do more to achieve our ambitious goals and we at National Geographic Society are fully committed, along with the Wyss Foundation and numerous other environmental organizations.