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Biden Pledges To Conserve Nearly A Third Of U.S. Land And Water By 2030

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President-elect Biden is making a bold promise on the environment. His administration will work to conserve nearly one-third of all U.S. land and water by the year 2030. Similar pledges are being made by countries around the world with the goal of slowing down the steep decline of nature. NPR's Nathan Rott looks at how realistic that is.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: If you're wondering why, in the midst of a global pandemic, the incoming Biden administration and countries are talking about conserving a chunk of nature, here's a good, blunt answer from the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres from a recent conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken. Dear friends, humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.

ROTT: Suicidal because we depend on nature. We depend on bacteria in the ocean for the oxygen that we breathe, forests and wetlands to filter our water and shield us from pathogens like COVID-19, pollinators for our food.

ENRIC SALA: And we cannot replace the services that nature give us for free.

ROTT: Enric Sala is a marine biologist and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, which he says is every bit as cool as it sounds.

SALA: The president of a country, when he saw my business card, said, oh, Explorer-in-Residence. Can we switch jobs for a month?

ROTT: Sala agreed. The president did not.

SALA: Every year, we are using more resources than the Earth can replenish in that year. We are acting as if we have 1.6 Earths.

ROTT: Clearly, he says, that's unsustainable. Sala was part of a team of scientists who published a paper last year explaining in detail how the global community needs to protect half of the planet by mid-century if we want to avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios and prevent the loss of those benefits we get from nature. The idea of half-Earth, as it's called, is not new. E.O. Wilson, one of the world's top biologists, wrote a book about it a few years ago.

SALA: But we need to start with something.

ROTT: So Sala and other scientists propose protecting 30% of the Earth's land and water by the year 2030 as a starting point. It helps that 30 by '30 is, you know, kind of catchy. Here's Jacob Malcom, the director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife.

JACOB MALCOM: Thirty by '30 - can't get much simpler in terms of how you communicate it with people.

ROTT: And he says that simplicity is really important, especially when we're talking about these huge, complicated, seemingly unsolvable issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. But is it achievable? Malcom says yes. Already 12% of the land and 26% of marine areas are protected in the U.S. through national and state parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges. How do you get the rest of the way?

MALCOM: If you have an administration that says, let's mobilize the federal government to incentivize protections for these areas, then I think that we can make huge progress.

ROTT: That means working with private landowners in the Eastern U.S. in places where there's little federal land and leveraging the full power of the federal government in the West, where there's a lot of it. Biden has plans for the latter. Two of his rumored potential nominees for interior secretary, a job that manages more than a fifth of all the country's land, have proposed separate pieces of legislation in Congress that would set a 30 by '30 goal. Deb Haaland, a Democrat and U.S. representative from New Mexico, is one of them.

DEB HAALAND: You know, right now, our public lands emit 25% of carbon into the atmosphere. That is a tremendous amount.

ROTT: That's 25% of America's carbon emissions. Whether or not Biden has support in Congress, Haaland says it's clear that the administration will shift away from fossil fuel development and move towards renewable energy sources. And she says it will act to protect more areas, protecting humanity down the road.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.