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Mass extinctions are happening. Can they be stopped?

Greg Stanley, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Scientists, conservationists and government representatives will gather this week in Montreal to decide on a plan to stop a stunning loss of plant and animal life around the globe. The United Nations' COP15 — a conference on biological diversity — offers a rare chance for countries to set mutual commitments and milestones for restoring and protecting key lands and waters.

The much-delayed and anticipated conference that begins Wednesday comes three years after a U.N. report found that more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction within the next few decades. Scientists are calling it the earth's sixth mass extinction — the first caused by humans. The decline has already begun and is affecting every part of the world, including Minnesota, where at least 150 species of animals and plants are on the verge of disappearing.

To reverse the trend, nations need to set concrete goals for saving land, funding restoration and protecting species, said Jeannine Cavender-Bares, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota.

Any commitments need to be clear, precise and measurable. They need to be monitored as they're implemented.

"Scientists are really worried that these targets are getting watered down," she said.

The biodiversity conference has been largely overshadowed by the U.N.'s COP27, a gathering held last month in Egypt to address problems wrought by a changing climate. That conference made little progress on measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but led to the creation of a fund that would help especially vulnerable nations.


Governments have debated biodiversity goals for years. In 2020, the U.N. released a proposed framework that included dozens of milestones. The proposal called for all nations to work together to stop any rise in the extinction rate by 2030. Countries would need to halve the rate that invasive species are spreading and upending new ecosystems. They would also need to ensure that 20% of degraded fresh water lakes and rivers are in some form of restoration within the next eight years. Each country would need to work to keep diverse gene pools in wild and domestic animals. Richer nations would need to contribute up to $700 billion a year to protect lands and waters.

Perhaps the most ambitious goal would be what is known as the 30 by 30 plan — to protect 30% of the earth's land and water in some form of conservation by 2030. The Biden administration has adopted the goal for the United States, although it is still unclear what land the administration considers protected.

By any measure, the state of Minnesota is well short of the goal, which it has not adopted. About 7% of Minnesota's land and water is permanently protected, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That number rises to 18% if it includes protected areas that allow multiple uses such as logging, mining and off-road vehicle riding.

None of the milestones have yet been agreed upon. Scientists fear that they will be replaced by vague promises.


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