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In a new study published in the journal Communications, Earth & Environment, University of Montana researchers and colleagues explore how climate change could challenge efforts to protect biodiversity within the network of protected areas around the globe.

The team examined how potential shifts in ecoregions and biomes caused by climate change might change their representation within the global protected area network. They also considered the implications for conservation targets that call for 30% of Earth’s habitats to be formally protected by 2030.

“At its most basic level, this study attempts to understand what shifts in the distribution of the Earth’s ecoregions and biomes will mean for the capacity to conserve and protect biological diversity using protected areas,” said Solomon Dobrowski, the paper’s lead author and a professor of forest landscape ecology in the University’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.

Scientists have divided Earth’s terrestrial areas into roughly 800 ecoregions. An ecoregion is an ecosystem defined by distinctive geography and biota. These combinations of plants and animals act as surrogates for the planet’s biodiversity and provide a means for scientists, international organizations and countries to track whether protected areas represent the planet’s biodiversity.

Countries around the world use protected-area designations to conserve biodiversity. Protected areas come in lots of flavors, Dobrowski said, like national parks in the U.S. But one thing they all have in common are fixed boundaries that delineate a place on the ground.

Climate change will likely affect what ecosystems are represented in protected areas, Dobrowski and his co-authors contend in the new study, but how remains unclear. It’s also unclear how that could affect the effectiveness of conservation strategies that rely on protected areas – like the United Nations’s draft of the Post-2020 Global Diversity Framework, better known as 30 by 30, which calls for permanently protecting 30% of the Earth by 2030 through expanding the protected area network, among other initiatives. (In the U.S., there also is the America the Beautiful initiative, which aims to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.)

The 30 by 30 framework will be addressed at the UN Biodiversity Conference COP-15, which kicks off online in October.

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