Urbanization, agriculture, and energy could gobble up 20 percent of the world’s remaining natural land by 2050.

(PLoS One)

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to approach nine billion. With more people will come more developed land—a lot more.

Urbanization, agriculture, energy, and mining put 20 percent of the world’s remaining forests, grasslands, and other natural ecosystems at risk of conversion by 2050. With that kind of expansion, there are sure to be harms—namely clean water, clean air, and biodiversity.

To mitigate some of those risks, scientists and geographers at the Nature Conservancy have taken a crucial step by mapping the potential impact that human growth will have on natural lands. It’s the most comprehensive look to date at how major forms of development will take over fragile ecosystems, if left unchecked.

Using publicly available global datasets, the researchers projected how terrestrial ecosystems would be affected by nine sectors: urban and agricultural expansion, fossil fuels (conventional oil and gas, unconventional oil and gas, and coal), renewable energy (solar, wind, and biofuels), and mining.

They ranked the development potential for each sector on a relative scale, based on either “the amount of unexploited resources (i.e. for fossil fuels, renewables, and mining) or estimated future area expansion derived from past trends (i.e. for urban and agriculture).”

(PLoS One)

Land conversion won’t look the same from region to region, or biome to biome. Continents that are less developed than others today will look much different in 35 years: In South America, the amount of natural land put to work could double, while in Africa, it could triple. Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, shrublands, forests, and deserts make up 66 percent of the areas projected to convert.

Globally, only five percent of at-risk natural lands are strictly protected. That’s not enough, the authors write:

With development increasingly encroaching into more remote and previously undisturbed areas, it is critical that international corporations, governments and conservation organizations collaborate to reduce and minimize potential future impacts on remaining habitats.

The authors urge stronger regulations on development siting and land-use planning to ease the effects of growth.

Below are maps of each sector’s projected development threat, via PLoS One:

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