If you’ve been following this year’s outlook stories, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they don’t paint a pretty picture, particularly for our environment. Climate-related disasters are getting worse; the ocean is losing fish and gaining plastic; urban pollution is at a choking point; drinking water is drying up; the world’s big cats are nearing extinction and some think coral reefs may not be far behind—troubling given this is also the International Year of the Reef.
And yet, as we look deeper into some of these challenges, we are beginning to see more people responding and new pathways emerging that could lead us toward solutions. New environmental leaders are stepping up across different sectors and geographies; new sources of financing are starting to close the gap in conservation funding; collective governance is emerging to better manage precious resources. Without minimizing the task ahead, we want to point to some trends that are unlocking investment for nature and offering hope for a sustainable future. Download our one-pager here.
Will Nature Go Mainstream in 2021?
As we set our collective vision toward global recovery in 2021, recognizing and making decisions based on nature’s value will be essential for building a better world.
1. High Time for the High Seas
Could the biggest thing to happen for the environment in decades be in the middle of the ocean?
Waters outside national boundaries are currently unregulated, and devastated by pollution and illegal and unregulated fishing, which costs global economies up to $23.5 billion annually (€19 billion). But 140 countries backed an unprecedented UN resolution at the end of last year for protection of the high seas—the two-thirds of the world’s oceans that cover half the planet and don’t belong to any one country. This resolution has been a decade in the making and now countries begin the crucial period of working out the text of a formal agreement over the course of four meetings beginning this September. The effort will culminate, if all goes well, with signatures by 2020. That makes 2018 the year when the hard negotiating begins—but if we want our ocean to continue to provide food, absorb carbon, and regulate our climate, protecting the biodiversity of the high seas is not a nice-to-have—it’s a must-have.
"This could be the most important step I have seen in my 30 years working on the ocean. We need a strong treaty that represents biodiversity and the ocean—this process could open the way to create a Paris Agreement for the ocean."
Former Global Managing Director, Oceans, The Nature Conservancy
2. A New Prescription for Public Health
A tree a day keeps the doctor away?
A shift in public health practices is underway as policymakers and healthcare providers alike focus on the connections between nature and human health. Cities such as Johannesburg, South Africa and Seoul, South Korea have set big goals for tree planting and green space preservation to combat air pollution, which is associated with millions of premature deaths annually. In the United States, insurers and healthcare providers like Humana and Kaiser Permanente are investing in urban green space as a form of preventative care. And in Louisville, Kentucky, the first controlled clinical trial on the efficacy of urban trees as a health intervention is now underway. Meanwhile, emerging research on the significance of watersheds for rural health could drive further cooperation between global health, development and conservation professionals.
"More people are breaking out of their traditional lanes of conservation, health and development to find new solutions. It's time to realize that we won't achieve better health for growing populations unless we attend to the health of the planet, too."
Former Global Managing Director, Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, The Nature Conservancy
3. Following the Money to Global Impact
What happens when investing for good meets financial reward?
Ten years after the term “impact investment” was coined, this type of finance is taking off in a new way. Small-scale impact deals have built a successful track record—both in financial terms and social impact—that is attracting follow-on capital and has caught the attention of major private equity firms including TPG and Bain Capital. These firms are beginning to aggregate such deals into larger funds that can scale and repeat investments. NatureVest, TNC’s conservation investing unit, is carrying this trend forward in the conservation space specifically, as it looks to start bringing forth its own transactions that aggregate deals in several different areas, including food and water security, and climate resilience. If this trend continues, private investments could start to make a dent in the estimated $300-400 billion gap (€240-325 billion) that currently exists in annual funding for global conservation needs.
"We’re seeing a real focus on bringing impact investments to the scale of the global challenges we face. If enough private capital is directed in the right ways, it can provide the needed push on top of public finance to meet the SDGs and Paris Agreement targets."
Managing Director, NatureVest
4. New Faces Tackling Climate Change
Who will step up on this generation’s main stage?
New leaders are emerging to tackle climate change. Six EU countries, including Greece and Hungary, have met their climate change targets early, and China has already met one of its four main climate change goals. China has also unveiled plans to create the world’s largest carbon market as the country continues to position itself as the world leader in the fight against climate change. Some 50 countries have ambitions to use 100% clean energy by 2050, including Germany, which is already sourcing 85% of its power from clean sources. Political commitments like the Paris Climate Accord, the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, meanwhile, continue to present major opportunities for investment in nature and involvement of the private sector. And this year’s Global Climate Action Summit, hosted in California by Governor Jerry Brown, will highlight the role of a global community of ambitious sub-national governments, including cities and local governments, that have publicly committed to long-term decarbonization.
"This year’s Global Climate Action Summit will add to the unstoppable momentum we’ve been building since the Paris climate talks. Despite last year’s setbacks at the federal level in the U.S., we are seeing more leaders, from China to state governments to major companies, stepping up to fill the void and lead on climate action."
Director of Climate Strategy, The Nature Conservancy
5. Natural Climate Solutions: the Year’s Top Carbon Technology
Solving for future carbon emissions is one thing; removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is another. Can we do both today?
Although clean energy and other environmental technologies are poised for crucial continued long-term growth (see #8 and #10), nature itself is emerging as this year’s most game-ready carbon storage technology and one of the most important ways to begin reaching international climate goals now. A peer-reviewed study, led by scientists from The Nature Conservancy and 15 other institutions, indicates that “natural climate solutions” could play a bigger role than previously thought, potentially delivering 37% of cost-effective carbon dioxide mitigation needed by 2030 for a greater than 66% chance of holding global warming below 2°C this century. Maximizing these solutions—which include the conservation, restoration and improved management of forests, grasslands, agricultural lands and wetlands to increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions—would be equivalent to stopping the burning of oil globally. With the science clear, more attention is shifting this year to catalyzing funding and action to make this a reality.
"We have proven the potential of nature to be a climate solution, but the science tells us we have no time to waste. This is a critical year where we need more ‘nature for climate’. And we’re seeing initiatives in both the public and the private sector beginning to unify these fragmented efforts."
Global Managing Director, Lands, The Nature Conservancy
6. Soil—Believe it or Not—is a Hot Topic
Here’s the dirt: this year, soil is on trend.
This wondrous mixture of organic matter blanketing our planet is so common it hardly registers a second thought among most people, yet healthy soil makes it possible to grow nutritious food, filter clean drinking water, soak up carbon from the atmosphere and even generate economic gains by increasing agriculture yields. Indeed, soil may well be the single most dynamic sustainability solution. Improving soils will contribute to the success of food and water security initiatives, human health, natural climate solutions (see #5) and forestry programs. In fact, many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and resilient agriculture will prompt a paradigm shift in how we feed the planet.
"We are finally appreciating soil’s critical role in not only providing food and water but also stabilizing the climate, and I believe we will see significantly more action on this issue in 2018."
Lead Soil Scientist, The Nature Conservancy
7. Engineering Our Way Out of Crisis—with Nature’s Help
The trillion-pound (£) elephant in the room? Infrastructure.
While nations like the Netherlands are long used to living with water and working with nature, climate change is mobilizing communities around the world to follow their example. Cities like Philadelphia and Seattle in the United States and Shenzhen in China are creating swales and rain gardens and restoring wetlands and other green spaces to manage stormwater, recharge groundwater and reduce flooding and pollution. Other cities, from Nairobi to Sao Paulo, are turning to water funds to invest in source water protection activities to secure better water quality and improve the health and well-being of local communities. Meanwhile, coastal communities—and big players in the insurance industry like Swiss Re—are gaining a new appreciation for the protection coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, dunes and reefs provide from flooding, erosion and storm surges. Given global needs for new infrastructure—McKinsey & Company estimates a needed $3.7 trillion in annual global spending between now and 2030—a focus on investing in and working with natural systems could have significant benefits for conservation efforts.
"More people—from governments to engineering firms to insurance companies—are waking up to the fact that major investment in nature is a key part of a new era of infrastructure solutions."
Co-Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy
8. Big Data and the Dawn of a Conservation Revolution
A welcome disruption? The tech industry is setting its sights on a new sector: conservation.
One of the most significant areas of work, unsurprisingly, is in data capture and analysis. Drones, bioacoustics and genetic mapping allow field scientists to gather more information than ever before. Meanwhile, the proliferation of smartphones and new mobile applications allow this data to be accessed and applied in new settings—on open-water fishing boats, for example, mobile apps are enabling better monitoring of global fish stocks and helping to reduce bycatch. Artificial Intelligence is also having radical effects on sustainability efforts like precision agriculture, and new ventures like the first startup accelerator focused on sustainability are kicking the door further open.
"Technologies that have revolutionized so many sectors of the economy have the potential to transform the way we do conservation. We’re at the front end of a new ‘nature-tech’ revolution and nature stands to win big from it."
Former President, The Nature Conservancy
9. More Companies Are Getting Serious About Global Green Goals
What to do with SDGs and two degrees?
The private sector’s alignment with global agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) signals an important commitment to addressing some of the world’s most urgent environmental challenges—companies know that investing in nature means investing in the future. Meanwhile, the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) is galvanizing emissions-reduction efforts, and the Accountability Framework is helping companies and NGOs iron out common definitions, norms, and good practices for delivering on ethical supply chain commitments. In addition, there has been a surge in corporate plastic reduction and recycling commitments, such as the European Commission plastics strategy—accelerated by campaigning and awareness but also China’s decision to ban imports of foreign recyclable material. The spotlight on these efforts is intensifying, too—just look to the letter sent by Laurence Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock—the largest money management firm in the world—to more than 1,000 CEOs of publicly traded companies calling for businesses to make greater contributions to society.
"Investing in nature is smart business. Companies understand that incorporating biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services into their sustainability strategies is an important move that will position them better in the future."
Former Co-Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy
10. Clean Energy Is Powering The Future—Now Where to Put It?
Our clean energy future is arriving faster than we thought.
That’s great news—so what’s the catch? Global forecasts estimate 80% of new investments in power generation will go to renewables as they become the most cost-effective source of power for many countries. But experts warn that if these energy installations aren’t sited carefully, the environmental benefits of low-carbon power can be hampered by habitat loss and disruption to critical ecosystem services. For example, planned hydropower dams could fragment 300,000 kilometers of free-flowing river, and the development of land for wind and solar power is making energy production the single largest driver of land-use change in the United States. The good news: through larger scale planning efforts and changes in siting and grid development practices we can minimize impact on habitats while potentially accelerating the uptake of clean energy sources. And the shift may be underway. Nations like Colombia and Myanmar are adapting system-scale approaches to hydropower and water management that balance power generation and river connectivity. And many regions of the United States are changing wind and solar siting practices to avoid disrupting vital habitats.
"We can win the battle for clean energy—but the challenge for the future will be figuring out where to put energy installations. We have to think bigger, moving from piecemeal planning to whole-system planning."
Senior Scientist for Global Lands, The Nature Conservancy
11. To Redefine Green Design, Cities Are Thinking Bigger—AND Smaller
Cities still strive for LEED buildings and light rail—but also a better walk down the block.
Mayors, planners, architects and others are re-defining the concept of the "sustainable city," expanding the definition from energy efficiency and carbon footprint to include a focus on the functionality and livability of cities for the people—and to an increasing extent, other species—who inhabit them. Organizations like 8 80 Cities take a more inclusive, community-centered approach to urban planning, aiming to make public spaces work for everyone, "from an 8-year-old to an 80-year-old." The Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities network, meanwhile, is at the vanguard of a future-looking approach that aims to protect residents from threats like climate change. Such efforts could be seen as a move toward the "human-scale cities" UN-HABITAT Director Joan Clos called for in 2016—but that phrasing shouldn't exclude an appreciation for the role natural ecosystems play in achieving these goals. A growing "biophilic cities" movement, for example, emphasizes the importance of incorporating nature for a variety of purposes, from biodiversity protection to aesthetics to health and infrastructure (see #2 and #7).
"Too often we’ve been designing cities for cars instead of the people who live there. Nature can be a catalyst for flourishing neighborhoods—but it’s crucial we do it equitably, so all communities have access to green spaces and the benefits they bring."
Global Managing Director, Cities, The Nature Conservancy
12. Oh, and One More Thing—More
More investment, more research, more accountability, more heroes.
The year 2020 will likely be time of stock taking, and while we’re seeing positive trends, we still have a long way to go on shared global goals. The Paris Agreement is the floor, not the ceiling, for global climate action, and we must collectively strive to do more if we’re to prevent escalating climate change. Many countries and corporations are still lagging behind on commitments already made—take, for example, the global Aichi Biodiversity targets, which only a handful of countries are on track to meet. Or global forest goals: tree cover loss reached a record 29.7 million hectares in 2016, an area the size of New Zealand—and 51% higher than the previous year. This must be a year when we double down and accelerate efforts across all sectors to turn the tide and begin to deliver on global targets like the SDGs while increasing investment in accountability, scientific research, innovation and real-world solutions in all these fields.