DURHAM, N.C. -- In recent years, “30 by 30” has become a rallying cry in international marine conservation.

It’s the idea that to safeguard marine biodiversity and limit environmental damage caused by future sea-floor mining and other industrial-scale human activities, we need to place at least 30% of the world’s oceans within marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2030.

It’s a whale of a goal, even if we account for recent progress.

In 2007, less than 1% of the oceans were within an MPA. Today, more than 8% are. While that’s a notable increase, it is still a long way off from 30%.

“The adoption of 30 by 30 is a remarkable achievement,” says Lisa Campbell, “but it also raises questions. Many people are concerned with enforcement and funding, or making sure MPAs are in the right places. The questions I’m really interested in are broader. How was such a rapid expansion achieved? And what does this tell us about how global environmental governance works?”

Campbell is Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Affairs & Policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She’s part of a pod of social scientists at the Duke University Marine Lab whose research and teaching focus on the human dimensions of marine conservation and governance.

Exploring how state and non-state actors, but also images, objects, and concepts like 30 by 30 shape international marine conservation and governance has increasingly become a major thrust of Campbell’s scholarship. She has been part of a team innovating ethnographic research methods to study global mega-events – like the UN Earth Summit or the World Conservation Congress – as increasingly important sites for global environmental governance.

She’ll discuss the trajectory of her research over the last 15 years and some of her key findings in a plenary talk at the inaugural Nicholas School Faculty Research Symposium, Sept. 29 at the Marine Lab.

The symposium, which is not open to the public, will feature research presentations by faculty members from all three of the school’s academic divisions: Environmental Science & Policy; Earth and Climate Sciences; and Marine Science & Conservation.

Drew Shindell, Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Earth Science, will present the symposium’s second plenary. Shindell was elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year in recognition of his widely cited climate studies.

Lisa Campbell head shot
Lisa Campbell

In her talk, Campbell will discuss her work at international meetings to document and analyze the ways state actors and non-state actors alike have shaped global marine biodiversity conservation goals and priorities—and the field of global marine biodiversity conservation itself—through a variety of practices or tools. These include orchestration; narrative; performance; alliance; social objects, devices and technologies; formal procedures; and formal outcomes.

She will explain how, although they sound abstract, each of these tools or practices are mobilized in very concrete ways.

Performance, for instance, can be a protest demonstration or celebrity appearance designed to call attention to an issue or goal. Alliance can be coordinated side events at a conference or informal huddles during negotiations. Social objects, devices and technologies can be maps, computer programs and technical guidance documents that are used to support a goal but are often promoted as if they were independent from it and neutral.

Campbell will describe how she and her research colleagues have conducted research at seven meetings on global biodiversity conservation since 2007 to track how these methods have been mobilized to shape and define marine conservation priorities.

In the case of 30 by 30, the research shows the concept was first introduced at a meeting of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, in 2014. Conservation advocates inserted it, without first gaining broad approval, into a nonbinding statement issued at the end of the meeting to conceptualize what delegates had agreed upon. The statement was called ‘the Promise of Sydney’ and many people at the meeting didn’t know where the 30% had come from and disputed that there was agreement on it. 

Even though the Promise of Sydney was nonbinding, Campbell says it set a precedent that gained momentum and shaped discussions at meetings of larger, more powerful organizations over the coming years.

In 2021, the United Nations’ Convention of Biological Diversity included the goal in its first official draft of its new Global Biodiversity Framework for Managing Nature through 2030. In 2022, roughly 190 nations—but excluding the United States—signed on the dotted line and agreed to pursue the sweeping measures needed to achieve the goal.

In less than a decade, 30 by 30 had gone from rogue idea to ratified global priority.

Whether or not it can be achieved remains to be seen, Campbell says. Though the United Nations recently negotiated a new international instrument that will allow for MPAs to be established in waters beyond national jurisdiction, the details for implementation have yet to be established.

The new treaty will be critical to meeting 30 by 30, Campbell says. Without MPAs on the high seas, every coastal and island state would need to protect almost of all their exclusive economic zones within MPAs. With the new agreement, another route to 30% becomes possible, she says, “because we could establish MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction, like the Sargasso Sea. This was almost unthinkable 20 years ago, but 30 by 30 makes it imaginable.”