We surveyed countries around the world to better understand how much people value nature, here’s what we found.
by Dr. Jonathan Baillie, Executive Vice President & Chief Scientist, National Geographic Society
In the crystal-clear waters of the Coral Triangle, live coral species first developed millions of years ago. It is a remarkable evolutionary feat. Today, however, some of the same corals that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs could disappear by the end of the century.
The Coral Triangle is not a household name but its importance to the region—spanning the archipelagic waters of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste—and the world cannot be underestimated. The waters are home to a vibrant network of marine life including the largest diversity of coral reefs and fish species on Earth. The ecosystem supports tens of millions of people who rely on the reefs for their livelihoods, food, and protection from natural disasters (coral reefs act as a buffer against storms and floods).
As scientists, people often ask: What does the science indicate about our changing planet? We have spent the majority of our careers working to better understand global biodiversity—the weird and wonderful species on Earth and the critical ecosystems they call home.
Today, the science indicates that more than 80 percent of reefs in the Coral Triangle are classified as threatened. This unique ecosystem is plagued by the same profound ecological degradation threatening ecosystems worldwide: From habitat loss and plastic pollution to climate change, species extinction, and beyond. Scientists are currently convening in Monaco to assess the state of our oceans and cryosphere for a special UN report on climate change. We know our planet is facing environmental threats that are unprecedented; some are irreversible.
As the stakes continue to rise, we wanted to better understand: How much do average citizens value the natural world?
This year, we commissioned the global research firm Ipsos to survey 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The survey results
show something we have long believed: People around the world not only value nature, they want far greater protection for it. A majority of the 12,000 people surveyed support protecting at least half of the Earth’s land and oceans. Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil rank the highest—more than 70 percent of online respondents want a majority of land and sea designated as protected areas. Not far behind is South Africa, the UK, the U.S., the UAE, and Australia, where 60 percent or more of respondents wanted a majority of both land and seas protected.
Those surveyed cited various reasons for why they believe safeguarding Earth is important. In each of the 12 countries, at least 70 percent agree that protecting nature is important for people’s health and for the economy, and they agree that being in nature brings people pleasure or satisfaction.
However, the findings also reveal striking challenges. People greatly overestimate how much of the planet is currently protected. The survey shows that, on average, people believe 36 percent of the planet is protected when in reality, the actual numbers are far lower—7.7 percent of the ocean and 15 percent of land are currently protected. Even the countries that produce the lowest average estimates, still believe that at least 25 percent of Earth’s lands are currently protected (including Australia, the UK, and the U.S.).
The question we must now ask ourselves is not how much of the natural world can we afford to lose, but how much can we collectively restore? The best science indicates that we must protect half the Earth in a natural state by 2050 with the first milestone of 30 percent by 2030.
Why set these conservation targets? These higher levels of protection are necessary to safeguard the benefits needed to sustain all life: Global biodiversity produces our oxygen, captures and stores more than 60 percent of human-caused emissions from entering our environment, and regulates our climate such that it can remain below a critical 2 degrees Celsius. These higher levels of protection are necessary then to avoid the mass extinction of wildlife and plant species, mitigate the dangerous impacts of climate change, and create the conditions necessary to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
Calls to protect half of the Earth are not new; Preeminent evolutionary biologist Dr. E.O. Wilson has long advocated for the protection of 50 percent of our planet in a natural state. However, as threats become more urgent, many scientists, experts, and organizations around the world agree that protecting 50 percent of the planet with an interim target of 30 percent by 2030 is necessary, and they are calling for action.
Next year, at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, world leaders plan to negotiate and adopt a new global pact to safeguard life on Earth, what is widely considered biodiversity’s companion to the Paris Climate Deal. We must ensure that their ambition matches the urgency of the threats we face. The survey results could have significant implications for governments and leaders to meet public demand for conservation.
Although the global challenges are enormous, the science indicates the steps we must take. If we want to maintain the great diversity of life and save precious ecosystems like the Coral Triangle from the same fate as the dinosaurs, we have a clear imperative: We must safeguard our natural world. We are inspired that so many people value nature and want to protect it. So, let’s build on this momentum. Our future depends on it.