Today is World Environment Day. This year will mark its 50th since 1972. The global community has achieved significant milestones towards targets on protected and conserved area coverage in that period. But do not do the victory dance just yet. According to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), we have fallen far short of commitments to these areas’ quality.

The latest biennial Protected Planet Report, which tracks Aichi Target 11, reveals that only 17% of land and inland water ecosystems and 8% of coastal waters and the ocean qualify as documented, protected and conserved areas. While this represents a 42% increase since 2010, it falls short of the aim to protect at least 17% of land and inland waters and 10% of the marine environment. The 10-year global target on protected and conserved areas planned to bring substantial benefits to biodiversity and people by 2020.

The report produced with support from the National Geographic Society concludes that quality improvement of these areas remains a big challenge. How can we achieve positive change for people and nature as biodiversity continues to decline, even within many protected areas?

UNEP-WCMC’s Director, Neville Ash, acknowledges the significant progress made in strengthening the global network of protected and conserved areas. He, however, admits this is insufficient for their practical and equitable management.

Way Forward: Beyond 2020

Effective protected and conserved areas should include important places for biodiversity. Yet, a third of key biodiversity areas, whether on land, inland waters or the ocean, remain unprotected. The connectedness of these spaces, the report suggests, also allows species to move and ecological processes to function. As we designate new areas, we also need to identify and recognise the existing ones. So too should the efforts of indigenous peoples, local communities and private entities. It is high time the conservation efforts of these groups receive recognition while acknowledging their rights and responsibilities.

On this World Environment Day, we need to realise that enhancing the equitable management of protected and conserved areas lightens the burden of conservation for local people. It gives all involved a sense of ownership.

Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN’s Director-General, has an even more ambitious ask. He wants parties at UN’s Biodiversity Conference in Kunming to increase the land, freshwater and ocean under protection to 30% by 2030. “These areas require an optimal placement to protect the diversity of life on Earth. They also need effective management and equitable governance,” he says. The conference will take place on October 11-24, in Kunming, China.

Conservationists maintain that protecting intact areas and restoring degraded ecosystems helps establish a network for nature that helps halt and reverse biodiversity loss. It also sustains essential ecosystem services, helps society tackle and adapt to climate change and reduces the risk of future pandemics. The effective management of these areas can help prevent further degradation and consolidate progress on their restoration.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration campaign aims to achieve this in the next ten years. It hopes to do so by preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. The campaign launches officially on June 5, on the same day World Environment Day takes place.

As we mark the 50th World Environment Day today, it is clear significant challenges lie ahead. But all is not lost. There is a likelihood we may even surpass the 17% coverage target on land once all unreported data streams in. So there is still an excellent reason to get out there and celebrate World Environment Day with cheer!