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Magazine Articles

The Next 25 Years

October/November 2015

The New Environmental Governance and Future of Conservation

Our planet is at a critical inflection point. As we reach 9 billion people and 3 billion new middleclass consumers in the next 25 years, society will experience an unprecedented increase in the demand for food, water and energy. Our increased demands have the potential to push fragile natural systems beyond the brink to collapse.

Traditionally, threats to the environment have been viewed as singular events, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, nature is increasingly at risk from ongoing human activity and the “by-products” of economic development. Agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining, energy production, manufacturing and urban development are now the dominant forces shaping virtually every natural system across the Earth.

Yet there is reason for cautious optimism. Thanks to advances in science, technology and communications, we know more about the environmental challenges we face than ever before. And for the most part, we know how to address these challenges.

The state of our environment in 2040 will largely hinge on one critical question: Can we create the governmental institutions and processes needed to take full advantage of what we know needs to be done, and get it done before it is too late?


Thanks to advances in science, technology and communications, we know more about the environmental challenges we face than ever before. Now is the time to act on that knowledge.


Learning How to Fix Our Fisheries

Fisheries are an important part of today’s global food system. They provide 20 percent of the animal protein in the diets of more than 3 billion people. They are also a significant part of the global economy. In 2010, fisheries and aquaculture produced 148 million metric tons of fish and shellfish worth $217 billion.

Overfishing has been a chronic problem. It occurs when the catch of a particular marine species in a specific geographic area is so large that the population cannot recover. The problem can be so severe that the fish stock collapses to near extinction and the ecosystem changes in ways that prevent recovery even if the fishing pressure is removed.

A key factor that has contributed to overfishing since the 1960s is improving technology. The size and power of vessels in the global fishing fleet has increased dramatically. More powerful vessels can pull more gear, and sonar has made finding fish easier.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of overfishing is the collapse of the cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland. Overfishing in this 300-year-old fishery began in the 1960s; in 1992, it collapsed. Despite [subsequent] removal of the fishing pressure, cod have not recovered.

Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 57 percent of all assessed fisheries are fully exploited—meaning that no growth in harvesting is possible. Approximately 30 percent of assessed stocks globally are overfished—up from 10 percent in 1974. And the outlook may be worse than the assessments imply: Out of an estimated 10,000 fisheries globally, only 450 stocks are regularly assessed.

Yet there is reason to hope. Recent changes in fishing regulations in several countries are showing signs of success. Some of the most promising measures for avoiding economic and environmental disasters include the following:

  • Co-management brings fishers into the decisionmaking and implementation of fishery regulations. Not only does this give them a heightened sense of ownership, it also makes good use of local knowledge.
  • Marine protected areas take a variety of forms. Some areas are closed for a time to some types of fishing to let stocks recover. Marine parks and reserves are permanently set aside to protect important features such as coral reefs or spawning grounds.
  • Ecosystem-based management sets total allowable catch by considering potential impacts of fishing on the entire marine system.
  • Catch shares give each licensed fisher a portion of the total allowable catch for a fishery. Fishers can match the capacity of their gear to the share and have an interest in sustainable fishery management because success will increase the market value of shares.

Smart science combined with improved governance offers the prospect of dramatically better management of marine fisheries in the coming decades.


Global Challenges and Opportunities

Two of the greatest threats from human activity are water scarcity and biodiversity loss. Surely good science and new technology will play major roles in understanding and addressing each of these threats. But an equally important challenge in each case is governance. Can we apply the lessons learned from addressing overfishing to develop and implement new institutions that will guide our behavior so these threats can be avoided?


Water Scarcity

The water we drink is only a fraction of the water we use. Agriculture accounts for approximately 71 percent of water withdrawals. Energy production and other industries account for another 16 percent, and municipal water supply systems withdraw the remaining 13 percent.

Today, 2 billion people live in regions with dry, fragile climates that are threatened by periods of water scarcity. Global freshwater withdrawals are expected to increase by 40 percent over the next three decades. By 2040, two-thirds of the global population will be in areas suffering from water stress.

Areas rich in aquatic wildlife habitat such as wetlands and river deltas may shrink as water is diverted to human use. As aquifers are depleted and water tables drop, the water that would normally discharge to springs and seeps is lost.

Reducing agricultural water demand will be key to meeting growing water needs. Strategies include more efficient irrigation systems; changes in tilling practices so that less soil moisture is lost through evaporation; shifts to crops requiring less water; and the development of new hybrid plants that can produce good yields in drier conditions.

One of the most promising ways to reduce water use involves new partnerships that channel payments from city water agencies and other industrial water users to agricultural producers who put water back into the river. Fresh water is the most valued service that nature provides. Users are willing to pay for it, if institutions can be created that allow farmers to deliver reliable water supplies to cities and industries.

Market institutions like this now exist to prevent pollution of urban water supplies. More than a dozen cities, including New York, Quito, Bogotá, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, have created water funds that pay farmers upstream to adopt practices that reduce sediment pollution. Cleaner water allows the city to avoid expensive investments in treatment that would otherwise be necessary to remove pollutants.

We should fully expect that similar voluntary and market-based arrangements between farmers and cities will be developed to meet water supply needs as cities struggle with growing scarcity. New forms of environmental governance—in addition to new science and technology—will be required to enable many cities to meet their water needs.


Biodiversity Loss

Biodiversity loss is one of the major environmental challenges of this century. Of the roughly 1.9 million known species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed 16,000 species as declining, threatened or endangered. Among those, 30 percent of amphibians, 23 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds are threatened with extinction within the next century.

Habitat conversion—most importantly from forests to croplands—has been the major source of biodiversity loss over the last century. And now climate change is projected to play an increasing role in driving biodiversity loss. It may account for 40 percent of the decline in the population of many species by 2040.

One key to protecting biodiversity is in the quality of human governance institutions, whether global (e.g., the Convention on Biodiversity), local (e.g., parks, national forests, wildlife refuges) or in the private sector (business commitments to avoid or offset biodiversity losses).

In response to global biodiversity loss, many governments have created protected areas, parks, open space and wildlife refuges set aside and managed for the benefit of biodiversity. The number of protected areas around the globe has exploded over the past 40 years, increasing from approximately 10,000 in 1970 to more than 100,000 today. Twelve percent of the Earth’s land area now has a protected designation, and 188 nations have committed to extend protection to 17 percent of all terrestrial habitats by 2020.

Yet many areas are not effectively managed because of a lack of resources. In fact, 14 percent of designated protected areas lack any management measures at all. Some of the most serious threats to biodiversity are actually driven by government subsidies for development. In this case, governance is the problem, not the solution. Repeal of some particularly harmful subsidies would be an important reform.

Many businesses are beginning to consider the role of nature in their supply chains and the impact of their plant and capital investments on natural systems. Biodiversity offsets for development impacts have been included in the laws of some countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, France, Mexico and South Africa.

Public policies and grassroots activism can encourage these new practices to expand and should insist that biodiversity values get increased attention in corporate decision-making in the next quarter century.


The Reason for Hope

Without much attention, there has been a tremendous change in the structure of global environmental governance over the past 40 years. It has moved out of regulatory bureaus and international tribunals into a legion of organizations and informal arrangements that move the agenda for nature protection forward. The new forms of governance involve landowner associations, resource user groups, indigenous communities, nongovernmental
advocacy organizations, academics, scientists, philanthropists and foundations.

These new institutions are effective not so much because of their legal authority or their size, but because of their shared knowledge, the trust built from long-standing interactions, their reach across scales to achieve local, national and global coordination, and their commitment to transparency.

This new environmental governance is what we do at The Nature Conservancy. We are a “bridging” organization. Our job is to build and maintain the connections between players—governments, scientists, investors, users, producers and consumers—who have more traditional roles. We facilitate change that would otherwise not be possible.

There are many examples of this work in our portfolio: creating water funds in South America; developing certification schemes for forest products; supporting fisheries co-management; designing biodiversity offsets for energy development; and mapping marine-protected areas around the world.

It is necessary to have good science on environmental trends and the technologies offering sustainable alternatives. But that is not enough. What we more often need today is better understanding of governance and institution-building processes so that we can turn science and technology into nature protection.

None of us can predict the new environmental challenges we will experience between now and 2040. But we can be sure that we are getting better at building and managing the governance institutions necessary to sustain nature on a planet now defined by our development.