9 Sept 2022


This article was originally published on National Parks Association of NSW.

By Dr Stuart Blanch, Senior Manager, Towards Two Billion Trees, WWF-Australia

The promise of protecting 30% of Australia’s land by 2030

“Our government will set a goal of protecting 30% of our land and 30% of our oceans by 2030,” said the Hon Tania Plibersek MP, Minister for the Environment and Water, during her National Press Club speech on 19 July 2022.

This follows the policy commitments by both the Coalition and Labor to the global High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which has a global goal to protect 30% of land and seas by 2030.

It is a super exciting, much needed, long overdue science-based opportunity. And a major challenge.

WWF-Australia strongly supports the 30 x 30 goal as a nature-based solution to the nature and climate crises.

It parallels WWF-Australia’s goal of securing 30% of seas within marine sanctuaries, and aligns well with Regenerate Australia, ultimately furthering Australia’s global role as a leader in protected and conserved areas.

We are urging the Australian government to take a lead role in negotiating a 30% target in the Global Biodiversity Framework that will be hammered out at COP15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Montréal, Canada, from 5-17 December 2022.

Today, protected and conserved areas cover approximately 184 million hectares (mha) of Australia’s land area (769mha), or around 24%. In 1996, the NRS covered 60mha, or 7.8%. That’s more than a three-fold increase in area in a quarter of a century.

Ecological representativeness in an expanded National Reserve System

WWF commissioned protected areas spatial analyst Dr Martin Taylor to estimate what it would take to create a truly ecologically representative network of protected and conserved areas as part of the 30% target. The analyses were undertaken using the most recently publicly available data in the Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database (CAPAD) from 2020.

WWF welcomes Minister Plibersek’s explicit commitment to addressing representativeness that she made during her National Press Club speech when she launched the State of the Environment Report. This refers to a key aspect of the global 30 x 30 goal.

“Ensure that at least 30 per cent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes."

In addition to the 24% protected already, WWF understands that a further 3% of land area – around 23mha – is likely to be added in coming months as more Indigenous Protected Areas are declared. If this happens, the NRS will expand to cover approximately 27% of land area. That would mean at least an additional 23mha – or 3% of land area – which is equivalent to roughly the area of the State of Victoria (22mha) – would need to be added within the next eight years to reach the 30% target.

WWF considers this a moderate ambition scenario. Under a high ambition scenario, however, WWF estimates this figure could be as high as an additional 53mha to ensure the NRS protects minimum representative samples of all bio-regions and ecosystems in Australia.

To put that in perspective, that is approaching adding an areas equivalent to two-and-a-half times the area of Victoria to the NRS within eight years.

Dr Taylor’s assessment identified the number of Australia’s 89 bio-regions that had at least 30% of their area were protected, and how many of Australia’s 6,001 terrestrial ecosystems had at least 15% of their area protected. These thresholds are based on conservation science and widely accepted protected area targets.

This represents a high standard of ecological representativeness that would ensure a representative sample of Australia’s diverse landscapes are protected. However protected area experts hold a range of views on whether this should be a priority, compared to other priorities such as protecting vast intact landscapes and ensuring equity for local communities.

WWF considers representativeness to be important, as reflected in the reserve design principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness (CAR). Protecting 30% at the national level could allow many bio-regions and thousands of ecosystems to be poorly protected if representativeness is not a key consideration. This would fail to adequately protect threatened ecological communities and species. Dr Taylor’s analyses, which used CAPAD 2020 data, determined that 41% of Australia’s 89 bio-regions on land had less than 10% protected within the NRS. For example, the ‘Callitris forests and woodlands’ ecosystem south of St George, Queensland, has <10% secured within protected areas, and the wider Darling Riverine Plain bioregion in which it occurs has <30% secured within protected areas.

Achieving a high ambition scenario will not occur without innovation, support from farmers and graziers, handback to Indigenous communities, bold new partnerships and major conservation financing from public and private sectors including carbon and biodiversity markets.

Five programs in pathway to 30%

WWF proposes a high ambition pathway to 30% made up of five complementary approaches: Indigenous Protected Areas (likely the major contributor), Indigenous land buyback grants (e.g. to create new co-managed National Parks or freehold Indigenous lands managed for conservation), general land purchase grants (e.g. to create new National Parks or private wildlife sanctuaries), state land protection support (e.g. to phase out native forest logging and transfer to protected areas) and nature friendly farm covenants (a great opportunity).

Dr Taylor’s analyses estimated a cost of $4 billion to increase land protection from 21% in 2020 to 30% in 2030. Modelling suggests it could generate $29 billion in carbon sink value by establishing a carbon sink of 10.8BtCO2-e. It would include revegetation and regeneration of almost 8% of the additional lands that need to be protected but which currently support little native vegetation due to historic landclearing.

What does 30 x 30 mean for New South Wales?

The challenges in achieving an ecologically representative 30 x 30 target nationally are evidenced in NSW.

Does NSW have to protect 30% of its area? Not necessarily, but it does need to contribute to the national goal, and could reap major benefits if it became a national leader by continuing the legacy of former NSW Environment Minster Matt Kean who rapidly grow the protected and conserved areas network in NSW.

In NSW, 7.6 million hectares of land occurs in the NRS, equivalent to just 9.6% of the total land area. Moreover, more than 60% of ecosystems have less than 15% of their area protected.

Achieving significant progress towards protecting 30% of NSW would require not just a significant expansion of legal protection, but also revegetation and rewilding of millions of hectares of long-cleared lands in the sheep/wheat belt. This would require significant investment from state and federal governments as well as corporate and philanthropic support through natural capital markets. In some cases creation of new protected areas may be contested by some locals. It is also becoming less realistic as global heating and extreme weather events worsen.

Completing the transition out of native forest logging could secure an additional two million hectares of public native forests. Transfer of Crown lands, including large areas of travelling stock routes with high conservation values, to the National Parks & Wildlife Service or Indigenous communities for conservation management, would need to be a major contributor to the 30% target. Supporting First Nations to voluntarily declare additional Indigenous Protected Areas could play a key role. Purchases of large pastoral stations in the Western Division could provide land justice for Indigenous communities through handback or co-management, and diversify rural economies as global heating increasingly makes some grazing and farming enterprises sub-economic. 

The Biodiversity Conservation Trust’s capacity to support private landholders to establish conservation agreements would need to be greatly expanded – without relying upon perverse offsets – including through innovative partnerships that also deliver carbon outcomes with social, cultural and economic co-benefits.

WWF is committed in Australia, as globally, to supporting a high ambition 30 x 30 goal. We welcome opportunities to partner with National Parks Associations and many other organisations and landholders to collectively achieve this critical goal.