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Climate change compels us to reconsider protected area borders

New research suggests that governments should designate protected areas based on land qualities—not current species’ locations.
February 24, 2021

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In response to climate-driven declines in global biodiversity, many nations have increased the amount of land and water they designate protected, mostly based on where affected species live. But as the climate warms, species may move out of those designated areas to search out more suitable habitats. And the species-focused designation doesn’t take into account yet-to-be-discovered species. New research suggests when designating protected zones, governments should make decisions based on land qualities instead of current species’ locations.

In a recent article in Global Change Biology, researchers outlined a more strategic way to designate protected areas. Instead of focusing solely on species distributions, the authors recommend prioritizing three area types: climate refuge areas that have been slower to experience the effects of climate change, areas with diverse landscapes that are likely to accommodate a mix of species and areas that increase connectivity between protected zones. The team analyzed what percentage of countries have designated protected areas based on these criteria in the last decade.

At a 2010 conference in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change announced 20 global biodiversity targets. Target 11 urged national governments to protect an average of 17 percent of land and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020. Although many countries have expanded the amount and range of their protected areas since the targets were announced, not all expansions prioritize climate adaptation, according to the study.

The research team conducted the first global assessment of protected area expansions at the country level evaluating how much area was designated protected based on the three criteria—climate refuge, landscape biodiversity and connectivity. Climate refuge areas were determined using greenhouse gas emissions trajectories and landscape biodiversity was characterized using topography maps. The study authors used a previously developed indicator to assess connectivity efforts, excluding water and political barriers. 

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Although about half of the 105 countries included in the study added protected areas that encompassed climate refuge land and diverse landscapes, about half also showed declines in connectivity. This indicates that many protected areas are isolated from one another, which could prevent species from seeking more suitable environments as the climate changes.

“We discovered that 94 percent of the countries in our study have a high potential for better protecting lands where climate is changing slowly and can act as a refuge for biodiversity, lands with high topographic diversity, or lands that increase connectivity,” said Xingli Giam, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology assistant professor and senior author of the study, in a press release. “We hope that countries can use our findings to identify opportunities to improve their climate adaptation strategies for preserving biodiversity in the long term.”

Source: Carrasco L, Papeş M, Sheldon KS, Giam X. Global progress in incorporating climate adaptation into land protection for biodiversity since Aichi targets. Glob Change Biol. 2021.

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