When we talk about protecting nature, many imagine a mist-shrouded old-growth forest or some other beautiful landscape untouched by human activities. But very little of the planet is truly "untouched"—95 percent of the Earth's surface outside of the polar regions has been modified by humans.
Whether it’s clearing land to grow crops and build cities, or fragmenting habitats with highways and railroads, human development has changed the surface of the planet in a variety of ways.
But lightly or moderately changed lands are still critical for wildlife—in fact, lands stewarded by Indigenous communities worldwide show people and nature can thrive together. If we’re to preserve the diversity of all habitats on Earth—and support the wildlife and human communities that depend on them—we have to protect and manage modified areas, as well as pristine landscapes.
Balancing the protection of nature with growing human needs will require careful planning—and a more complete understanding of how we are changing the planet. The following maps show the current extent of land change on Earth, what future changes might look like, and what is driving these changes.
I. Our Impact on Nature: What on Earth is Left?
Humans have transformed the Earth. We’ve impacted the land surface with multiple forms of development, including urbanization, agriculture, energy, mining and infrastructure expansion. These maps show where 50 percent of the planet has been highly or moderately modified. They show that to truly save nature for its sake and our own, the moderately modified places—where humans have left a mark but some wild land still exists—are just as critical to conserve as the last remaining pristine areas.
CURRENT STATE OF THE LAND ON PLANET EARTH
Saving pristine areas isn't enough
Conserving nature in these moderately-modified places, which make up half of the world’s natural systems and countries, presents a huge opportunity to secure a more sustainable future for people and the planet.
II. Future Land Pressure: How to Make Space?
Global economic output is expected to double over the next two decades, and trillions of dollars will be invested in new energy, mining and infrastructure projects around the world. Can we balance this growth and meet human needs while still conserving the nature on which all life depends?
AREAS THREATENED BY FUTURE DEVELOPMENT
Balancing human needs and conservation of nature
Landscape planning can help guide future development to avoid further loss and degradation of natural areas.
III. Planning for a Better Planet
We need to plan if we want a balance between nature and development. That means we need to understand what’s driving land change and where it's happening. While agriculture is expected to remain a major driver, future energy and infrastructure development could impact more lands than agriculture and urban growth combined.
Protecting nature can no longer fall to environmentalists alone. Better planning will require collaboration across all of society and in particular across major economic sectors and the government ministries that regulate them.
FUTURE PRESSURES FROM ENERGY AND INFRASTRUCTURE
In North America and South Asia, increasing energy needs will likely drive new development. This development, including much-needed renewables, must be sited wisely to avoid lands that naturally store carbon and provide wildlife habitat.
FUTURE PRESSURES FROM AGRICULTURE
In South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is expected to be a major driver of land-use change, especially for commodity crops like soy. But science, economics and conservation practice prove that it is feasible to increase global food production without converting more naturalhabitat into farmland.
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