Only one month after the critical Cop27 climate change meetings in Egypt, the global community is meeting in Montreal this week to agree on a plan that can halt and reverse biodiversity loss. The importance of this moment cannot be overstated. Not only are we facing the threat of climate change, but we are also facing a crisis of nature.
The world is losing its biological diversity at unprecedented rates. Globally, 28 per cent of all assessed species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are threatened with extinction, almost all caused by human activities, including climate change and other threats such as habitat loss. In the UAE, 74 species are listed as threatened, among them Dugong (Dugong dugon), Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin (Sousa plumbea), Arabian Tahr (Arabitragus jayakari), and Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx).
We need the conference in Montreal to be a success. Countries must agree to a set of ambitious, scientifically sound goals to safeguard life on earth – and they must define a specific roadmap to get there, with measurable, clearly defined targets for the conservation of species and the protection and restoration of ecosystems, and the necessary resources to implement them.
Along with many civil society organisations and governments, including that of the UAE, IUCN has been calling for the conservation of at least 30 per cent of the world’s land, freshwater and marine ecosystems by 2030 under the Montreal agreement, or what is called 30x30. Today, we are at roughly 17 per cent protection on land, and just under 8 per cent in the ocean globally and around 20 per cent of terrestrial and marine areas are protected in Abu Dhabi. But the numbers tell only part of the story.
Needless to say, should we fail to agree to protect 30 per cent of the world’s terrestrial and marine areas, we are also setting the ground for failure to mitigate climate change goals.
Area-based conservation – the designation of a certain part of the land or the ocean as a “protected area”, “nature reserve” or “conservancy” – takes many forms; from large national parks like America's Yellowstone or Tanazania's Serengeti, to privately owned conservatories and sustainably managed lands administered by local and indigenous communities. It includes wilderness areas that remain largely intact as well as areas cultivated by humans for centuries, and once-degraded places that have been restored.
These places can all be part of the 30 per cent goal if they provide benefits for people and nature. To do so, the need to be effective, since conservation on paper does not benefit biodiversity. They need to include key biodiversity hotspots while covering all types of ecosystems, and they must be well-connected.
At the same time, conservation must be equitable and people-centred. Placing an area under conservation cannot mean excluding people who live there, but should empower and benefit them. In most cases, it will go hand in hand with sustainable development and contribute to local livelihoods, and under no circumstances should it ever go against the will of local communities.
If the goal of 30 per cent protection by 2030 is formally adopted in Montreal, governments and private sector stakeholders will need tools to measure their progress and ensure that quality standards are met. Drawing from its vast network of members and experts, IUCN has a long history of providing such tools, including the IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas, which ensures that area-based conservation delivers outcomes for people and nature. I call on negotiators in Montreal to make use of this invaluable resource.
The Green List Standard is both a roadmap for good, equitable area-based conservation and a benchmark of excellence. It sets clear, globally applicable quality criteria on governance, planning, management and conservation outcomes, and provides managers of protected and conserved areas with guidance on how to achieve them. Sites that fulfil all the criteria are awarded with the coveted Green List status.
There are several Green List Protected Areas already established across the Middle East and North Africa and several other candidate parks which are currently being considered for the Green List. Some of these parks are well-known treasures including Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve in Lebanon and Ras Mohammed National Park in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while others are less well-known parks such as Jordan’s Ajloun Forest Reserve and the UAE’s Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Abu Dhabi.
The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, 40km southeast of Abu Dhabi Island, was the region’s first-ever protected area to achieve this honour in 2019. The history of this remarkable place, which is home to flamingos and other migratory birds such as the golden eagle, can show us the way to the future. Today, Al Wathba is a natural paradise, teeming with life. But only two decades ago, this wildlife sanctuary was an urban-industrial complex, a diamond in the rough.
Today, there are three other protected areas in the UAE, which are being considered for the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas including the Dubai Desert Reserve, Mangrove National Park, and Marawah Biosphere Reserve and across the Mena region there are more than 12 additional protected areas across eight countries being considered for IUCN Green List status.
The model of Al Wathba and the other Green List protected areas in the region can be emulated across the world, if all sectors of society come together with a joint goal. IUCN stands ready to share their learnings to help the world work towards 30x30.