According to a group of researchers from 13 universities in three countries, the potential for large countries to contribute to environmental protection is being overlooked.

The researchers looked at the leverage an individual country can have when it comes to protecting the ecosystem, and the answer turns out to be “quite a lot.” And they say it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a level playing field where small countries contribute in an outsize way while big countries lag behind.

One of the research team’s leaders, Adam T. Ford, a Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology at the University of British Columbia Okanogan, said that the researchers began by calculating the land mass of the world’s countries, then compared that to the availability of ecosystem values. Their studies revealed that the eight largest countries—Russia, Canada, the United States, China, Brazil, Australia, India, and Argentina—account for 50 percent of the earth’s land area. Those countries comprise barely three percent of the world’s nations.

Ford said that large countries naturally accumulate greater amounts of ecosystem values, and because of that, those few nations have the power to make decisions that affect the world’s remaining ecosystems.

What are “ecosystem values?” There are six globally significant ones for all the world’s nations: intact lands, freshwater availability, breeding habitat for migratory wildlife, soil carbon storage, productive marine environments, and the potential for range shift in the face of climate change. By examining those specific values, UBC Okanogan postdoctoral fellow Laura Coristine said that the team revealed “several overlooked opportunities for high-impact contributions to global conservation.”

For example, more than 75 percent of the world’s total water supply—both surface and glacier-stored—is found in only three countries: Canada, China, and Russia. And how those countries manage their water supplies has a worldwide impact.

“For nations with a large volume of both surface and glacier-stored water, water policies and management of the ‘tap’ will have consequences not only for the global persistence of a wide variety of ecosystems, but also for global water security,” Coristine said.

The same thing is true for continental shelves, the shallower parts of the ocean adjacent to continents. The largest contributors to the global supply of continental shelf are Russia, Canada, the U.S., and Australia; those countries’ management of the continental shelves could have a significant impact on marine life and pollution. Likewise, Russia and Canada top the list when it comes to the amount of intact wilderness, and their forest management practices can have a worldwide impact.

“Conservation superpowers—like Canada and Russia—have much greater leverage than we would predict based on their land mass,” Coristine said. “They have tremendous potential to impact global conservation outcomes through accumulation of ecosystem values and through policies that support conservation.”

The lesson: even if you live in a country that may not have a huge place in the world’s political scene, your nation can still have a huge impact on the world’s ecosystem. Thus, it’s worth it to advocate for domestic laws and statutes that preserve habitat, contain pollution, codify environmental protection, and contribute to sustainable energy resources.

Photo: Pristine Canadian wilderness. Credit: Shutterstock