Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth's life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.
Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.
The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.
Dealing with failure
But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the study published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.
"It is amazing to me that we haven't dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses," said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear," Mora said.
The ability of protected areas to address the problem of biodiversity loss - the decline in diversity and numbers of all living species - has long been overestimated, the study reported. The reality is that most protected areas are not truly protected. Many are "paper parks", protected in name only. Up to 70 per cent of marine protected areas are paper parks, Mora said.
The study shows global expenditures on protected areas today are estimated at $6bn per year, and many areas are insufficiently funded for effective management. Effectively managing existing protected areas requires an estimated $24bn per year - four times the current expenditure.
"Ongoing biodiversity loss and its consequences for humanity's welfare are of great concern and have prompted strong calls for expanding the use of protected areas as a remedy," said co-author Peter Sale, a marine biologist and assistant director of the United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
"Protected areas are a false hope in terms of preventing the loss of biodiversity," Sale said.
The authors based their study on existing literature and global data on human threats and biodiversity loss.
When asked about the 2010 global biodiversity protection agreement in Nagoya, Japan to put 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of oceans on the planet under protection by 2020, Sale said it was "very unlikely those targets will be reached" due to conflicts between growing needs for food and other resources.
"Even if those targets were achieved, it is not going to stop the decline in biodiversity," he said.
One reason for this is "leakage". Fence off one forest and the logging pressure increases in another. Make one coral reef off limits to fishing and the fishing boats go the next reef.
Another reason protected areas aren't the answer is that fences or patrol boats can't keep out the impacts of pollution or climate change.
Finally, the pressures on the planet's resources are escalating so quickly that "the problem is running away from the solution", he said.
The loss of biodiversity is a major issue because it is humanity's only life-support system, delivering everything from food, to clean water and air, to recreation and tourism, to novel chemicals that drive our advanced civilisation, said Mora. Right now the dominant strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity is with protected areas.
"That's putting all our eggs in one basket," he said. "A major shift is needed to deal with the roots of the problem."
The ever-expanding footprint of humanity is the primary cause of global biodiversity loss. When the world's population was 5bn people in 1985, the amount of nature's resources being used or impacted became more than the planet could sustain indefinitely according to many estimates, said Mora.
The world population, currently at 7 billion, is well beyond Earth's ability to sustain. By 2050, with a projected population of 10 billion people and without a change in consumption patterns, the cumulative use of natural resources will amount to the productivity of up to 27 planet Earths, the study found.
Sustaining the current 7 billion people on the planet requires a major shift in resource use. At present, the average US citizen's ecological footprint is about 10 hectares, while a Haitian's is less than one. The planet could sustain us if everyone's footprint averaged two hectares, Mora said.
If there are more people, then there are simply fewer resources available for everyone, so population control will be needed along the lines of "one child per woman", he said.
"I'm from Colombia, it blows my mind that some governments in the developing world pay women to have more children," he added.
Hardly anyone is focused on the pressing need for a major shift, said Sale.
"The awareness of the public about this is shockingly low," he noted. What is needed is for humanity as a mass to change direction, he said.
"But can we find the hook, the lever that's needed to make that happen?" Sale asked.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.