Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

In particular, humans spare nature by more efficiently using land to produce food, wood, and other goods, and by substituting technology for ecosystem goods, such as going from bushmeat to farmed meat, wild fisheries to aquaculture, fuelwood to modern fuels, and from organic to synthetic fertilizer.

Decoupling reduces pressures on wildlife and natural habitats, thereby enabling traditional conservation approaches like protected areas, which remain essential at the landscape level.

As population growth slows down and demand for material goods saturates in developed nations, continued decoupling could result in the peak and decline of human impacts on the environment this century.

Governments and conservation organizations can contribute to realizing this vision by supporting agricultural intensification, energy transitions toward cleaner, denser fuels, as well as urbanization.

Download the report Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation here.


Human success has come at the expense of nonhuman life. Since 1900, the human population has more than quadrupled and global average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined. At the same time, demand for food, water, energy, materials, and living space has increased manifold. The production of these goods and services has entailed widespread biodiversity loss through impacts ranging from wildlife harvesting to land-use change, water extraction, and pollution. Humans today actively use nearly half of earth’s ice-free land, displacing and fragmenting natural habitats. Pastures account for 26% of global ice-free land, cropland 12%, production forest 9%, and cities less than 3%.

Although many of humankind’s environmental impacts have grown in absolute terms, several have plateaued or started to decline, and most impacts have declined on a per-capita basis. Slowing population growth, demand saturation in developed countries, and improved technological efficiencies have all contributed to what is known as decoupling. Relative decoupling refers to impacts growing at a slower rate than population or consumption. Absolute decoupling means impacts are declining in absolute terms. The per-capita farmland requirement (cropland and pasture) has declined by half in the last half century. In absolute terms, cropland has expanded 13% and pasture 9% in that time period, but the sum of the two has remained stable since the mid-1990s. Global consumption of wood has plateaued, contributing to a slight decline in the area of production forest since 1990. Total water consumption increased by 170% between 1950 and 1995, but per-capita water consumption peaked around 1980 and declined thereafter. The least decoupled environmental impact is greenhouse gas emissions from energy: global per-capita emissions increased by nearly 40% between 1965 and 2013.

Humans spare nature from human use through the creation of substitutes. Going from wildlife harvesting, to the controlled production of biomass in agriculture and forestry, to fully synthetic means of providing material goods has historically lowered the amount of environmental impact per unit of production. Farmed instead of wild meat takes pressure off wild animal populations. Aquaculture increasingly takes pressure off wild fish stocks as feed-to-meat conversion ratios improve and plant-based feeds substitute fish-based feeds. Forests are spared when humans move from reliance on wood fuel to modern energy. Replacing organic with synthetic fertilizer eliminates the need to allocate land for nitrogen fixation. Substituting synthetic fiber and rubber for their natural counterparts reduces the land required to produce these goods. Tractors substitute draft animals, freeing up land previously dedicated to growing animal feed.

Intensification producing more of a good on the same amount of land reduces the human land footprint. Increasing yields in farming or forestry, as well as denser settlements, are examples of intensification. Agricultural intensification causes biodiversity loss on farmland, but reduces the need to convert natural habitats to farmland. In many regions, especially the tropics, the biodiversity loss from conversion is greater than the loss from intensification, such that intensification benefits biodiversity overall. However, the land-sparing benefits may fall outside the region whose yields have improved. Rising agricultural productivity in tropical regions has contributed to a shift in agricultural production away from temperate regions, facilitating forest regrowth in the latter but driving deforestation in the former. For a region to reap the biodiversity benefits of intensification, and to concentrate agricultural production on already cleared lands, policy interventions like land zoning or product certification are needed. Organic farming typically performs no better than its conventional counterparts in terms of pollution.

Substitution and intensification passively protect natural habitats and wildlife. By providing cheaper and better alternatives to wildlife harvesting, and by allowing demand for food, wood, and other goods to be met on a smaller area, substitution and intensification passively protect wildlife and habitats. When there is no economic reason to exploit wildlife or land for material purposes, they can be spared from human use, satisfying the aesthetic and spiritual desires that underpin conservation. Passive protection largely explains why half of all land on earth is not actively used by humans: no profit could be made from converting these lands to agriculture and forestry, and conservation is therefore the “highest use” of the land regardless of any formal protection. Nature use-less is nature saved.

Abundant modern energy enables decoupling. Many forms of substitution entail higher consumption of modern energy, including the substitution of farmed for wild fish and meat, as well as synthetic for organic fertilizer. Agricultural intensification relies on energy-intensive fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, and irrigation. Although modern energy can spare land and wildlife, it has important environmental consequences itself, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and conventional air pollution. This trade-off can be mitigated by moving toward less polluting energy sources.

Protected areas have a limited capacity to reduce aggregate global habitat loss and wildlife decline. Protected areas, which are intended to exclude some or all ecologically harmful human activities from an area by legal means, are often unable to compete with other economic activities like farming or logging. Most of the land under protected-area status is passively protected, such that the legal protection makes little net difference to land use or resource extraction. When opportunity costs emerge or grow after legal protection is established, governments often make protected areas weaker or smaller, or remove protection completely. In other cases where protection competes with economic interests, protected areas are often weakly enforced, possibly indicating limited willingness of local and national communities to forego economic opportunities. Protected areas can overcome these obstacles and make a difference to land use or resource extraction within their borders, but in these cases the ecologically harmful activities are typically displaced elsewhere. This means that even though protected areas can be important conservation instruments at the landscape level, their effects do not scale up to the global level as long as there is continued demand for crops, meat, timber, and other land-based commodities.

Valuing ecosystem services can enable conservation at the local level, but does not scale up to address global habitat loss or wildlife decline. Conservation by use, based on small-scale harvesting of ecosystem goods like fuelwood, wild foods, and rubber, often fails to alleviate poverty or compete with alternative land uses like intensive farming because of the very low incomes earned from harvesting these ecosystem goods. Even relatively low rates of harvesting cause some level of biodiversity loss. Regulating ecosystem services like air and water purification, pollination, and flood control can in many cases be performed by ecosystems far simpler than those typically targeted by conservation, and can in most cases be substituted or otherwise made redundant with technology. Even so, the per-unit area value of regulating ecosystem services from natural habitats may be able to compete with alternative land uses in cases where the regulating services are highly concentrated and where the natural habitats are sufficiently close to economic activities like farming or cities. However, it has not been proven that more diffuse regulating services, or those located far from cities or farmland, can compete on economic terms with nonconservation land uses like intensive farming, housing development, or tree plantations. Where valuing regulating services does alter land use, the economic activities, including farming and forestry, are typically displaced rather than eliminated, implying that this approach does not scale up to a global level.

Continued and accelerated decoupling can allow human impacts on the environment to peak and decline this century, but traditional conservation approaches will still be needed. Peak impact is not inevitable but rather depends on concerted action by governments, NGOs, and private actors. As such, decoupling offers a concrete goal and an affirmative vision for conservation in the 21st century. However, decoupling does not solve every conservation problem, and comes with its own limitations. Decoupling does not guarantee that the landscapes that conservationists care about most will be preserved, nor that land that remains in production will be concentrated in areas where ecological impacts are least significant. Even after peaking, large-scale environmental impacts will persist through the century. Decoupling should therefore not be understood as an alternative to existing conservation approaches but as a complement that makes conservation possible on a larger scale. Decoupling addresses the limited capacity of protected areas and ecosystem services to achieve reductions in aggregate human impacts, whereas protected areas and ecosystem services, within a framework of strategic landscape planning, address the limited capacity of decoupling to achieve optimal outcomes at the species or landscape level.

A broader framework for conservation should include active diffusion of low-impact technologies, modernization, landscape planning for protection and production, and innovation on the technological frontier. Conservation organizations, governments, and private firms can actively contribute to accelerating decoupling by, among other things, supporting agricultural intensification and substitution away from wild fish and meat, as well as helping societies climb the energy ladder toward cleaner, cheaper, and less land-intensive energy sources. There are already examples of successful on-the-ground projects to increase crop yields and help communities transition away from fuelwood. These processes of substitution and intensification occur within the broader context of modernization, including urbanization, income and consumption growth, and a shift from subsistence farming to manufacturing and services. Landscape planning includes the strategic design and placement of protected areas, infrastructure such as dams and roads, as well as farmland and production forest, in order to seize opportunities from decoupling and minimize biodiversity loss from production of food, energy, and other goods. Finally, innovation on the technological frontier in areas like agriculture and energy pushes forward the envelope of possibility for decoupling.

Download the report Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation here.