Courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell researchers recently identified regions important to both biodiversity and human development, indicating conflicting interests

January 25, 2024

Lab of Ornithology Researchers Map the Planet’s Critical Areas for Biodiversity and Nature Conservation

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Cornell researchers recently reported that most of the global land supporting human life is unprotected. 

In a study published on Jan. 10 in Nature Communications, researchers of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology discovered that over 80 percent of the global land area supporting both human well-being and biodiversity is unprotected. 

To effectively define priority regions for protection, the researchers expanded on past efforts and approached mapping from a new perspective. Using mathematical modeling, the researchers factored in the contributions of ecosystem services — the benefits that nature provides to people, including food, clean air and soil quality — and potential conflicts with human development — examples of human development include agricultural and renewable energy expansion. 

The study found that approximately half of global land, excluding Antarctica, provides almost all of nature’s services to people. This land also preserves biodiversity for 27,000 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. However, only 18 percent of this land is sufficiently protected, based on information from the World Database of Protected Areas.

The WDPA is a comprehensive international database of protected marine and terrestrial land areas. Protected areas are established through government involvement at local, regional, or national levels; land purchase by private organizations and community movements. The researchers used the database to create maps of areas that need protection prioritization around the world.

However, the findings indicate that there may be conflicts between land conservation and development goals. Thirty-seven percent of the global land areas that provide nature’s services to people are also ideal for human development with agriculture, renewable energy and urban expansion. Such contradictory goals mean that successful land conservation may require creative approaches. 

“At a high level, our work illustrates how we can use spatial planning to reduce the land footprint required to meet biodiversity, climate and ecosystem service goals and, by doing so, better accommodate human activities associated with development goals,” said lead author Prof. Amanda Rodewald, natural resources and the environment, in an email statement to the Sun.

According to Rodewald, there are formidable challenges to this process with the limited international resources available to address biodiversity loss, poverty, food and water insecurity as well as climate change. The Lab’s work sets the foundation for identifying global targets and priority regions for efficient conservation and sustainable development investments. 

In the future, solutions will need to be carefully designed to ensure that human development initiatives are compatible with conservation goals. According to first author and doctoral candidate Rachel Neugarten, these solutions could involve cultivating native pollinator gardens under solar panels or implementing livestock grazing under wind farms. 

“Avoiding or reducing [conflicts between climate, biodiversity and development goals] requires that we be strategic and deliberate about planning where we direct conservation and development efforts,” Rodewald said. 

Kaitlin Chung can be reached at [email protected].