This year was full of best laid plans for the environment. Campaigners were colloquially calling 2020 a “super-year,” with three critical international meetings that could yield a strong global treaty on biodiversity, a long-awaited high seas ocean agreement, and a climate convention which was to hold countries to account and ratchet up global climate ambition. Decades-long negotiations and intergovernmental meetings might finally culminate in transformative globally agreed action.
Then COVID-19 struck.
In the haze that followed, meetings were postponed, then cancelled; some came back to life as smaller online gatherings, while others were moved to 2021. Webinars became the new hot currency. Could Zoom diplomacy actually work? How do you work with governments and businesses on tangible and effective outcomes with in-person gatherings cancelled? No casual corridor chats, no cozy coffees, no side meetings adjacent to the formal ones.
Most importantly, no rooms full of negotiators thrashing out the text that would turn the concepts behind these global conventions into behaviour and regulations—and then into real action on the ground.
Is 2020 a lost year for the environment?
That largely still depends on us.
Government priorities rightly turned to the immediate health and economic crises precipitated by COVID-19—crises that are still far from over. But COVID-19 also showed that challenges of this scale cannot be addressed in isolation, offering a model, however imperfect, of what global cooperation can look like.
We still do have international gatherings planned, albeit online. The UN General Assembly precedes a Head of State Biodiversity Summit at the end of September where we hope to see country commitments and declarations with nature and nature-based solutions front and center of decision-making.
And the pandemic has experientially deepened our understanding of our reliance on and interdependence with the natural world, offering a painful demonstration of how practices like deforestation, intensive and polluting agricultural practices, unsafe management and commercial trade in wildlife will increase the risk of emerging infectious diseases in humans. In fact, the WHO has declared that nature is the number one prescription for a healthy, green, recovery.
Could a ‘Green Recovery’ restore nature?
This year has seen a frenzy of valuable new research explaining the value of nature to job creation, and why the crisis engulfing nature is bad news for business and economies. We also witnessed a number of emergency declarations, letters from economists demanding a phase out of fossil fuels, and a series of widely touted economic principles for a greener, safer recovery. The principles, advanced by a variety of NGOs and civil society groups, are broadly based on the premise of “building back better”—incorporating nature and climate considerations into the economy in order to provide long-term stability and resilience.
A question worth asking is whether such plans could begin to stem—or even reverse—the damage we’ve done to the natural world. A report from the Paulson Institute, The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to be released this September 17 ahead of the UN General Assembly and Heads of State Biodiversity meeting will, for the first time, detail what we will need to spend to adequately protect and begin to restore nature—a price-tag to save Earth, if you will.
Our present state is largely the result of an economic model that has undervalued the importance of nature. But as we look beyond the immediate health crisis toward the resulting economic stimulus efforts, there is massive growth potential in the pivot toward a future economy that is both carbon-neutral and nature-positive. That will mean investing in ecosystems to retain and store carbon, planning infrastructure to minimize impacts on nature, and shifting toward more sustainable and regenerative agricultural systems.
In fact, protecting and restoring natural places is one of the greatest long-term investments we can make for societies right now. We urgently need to protect, restore and improve large areas of habitat, particularly at mid-latitudes where the highest biodiversity, the highest concentrations of emerging infectious diseases and the largest human populations are all found.
Of course, balancing the protection of nature with growing human needs will require careful planning—and a more complete understanding of how we are changing the planet. And while it’s heartening to see a discussion of biodiversity’s inclusion in economic planning scheduled to take place at the next UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) next May in China, such dialogue must be part of everyday mainstream thinking, not just high-level summits.
How will we use our ‘extra time’?
With the UN Convention on Biological Diversity postponed till May, and the UN climate convention till November 2021, we find ourselves with a longer timeline to land major global agreements. But unlike in a football match, this extra time isn’t about deciding the winners and losers. In fact, the rules of this game have changed entirely.
Being forced closer to home and online, we have saved on the cost of travel both in CO2 and dollars. We’ve also innovated with new ways of working, using tech more efficiently and connecting across time zones.
We’ve seen new gains on the global stage. A new international partnership—the Global Commons Alliance— has been created to provide a platform that will help organisations stay within safe operating limits for our planet. A number of organizations have agreed on a global goal for nature which defines what is needed to halt and reverse today’s catastrophic loss of nature. This global goal commits the world to taking action now to halt nature loss and ensure we are nature-positive by the end of this decade.
On the climate front, countries still need to say what they can commit to this year, but it’s heartening to see many recognizing nature and nature-based solutions as integral to their overall climate ambition as well as future job creation. And as we rethink how we travel and work, there’s a new opportunity to double down on clean energy as part of the economic recovery.
All to play for…
The cost of preventing further pandemics over the next decade by protecting wildlife and forests would equate to just 2 percent of the estimated financial damage caused by COVID-19, according to one recent analysis. At a time when a mere fraction of GDP is spent on natural capital and green recovery efforts, we must all realize we are the asset managers of the future.
We may have lost some momentum as we’re buffeted by the COVID winds, but we can’t afford to let go our great ambitions for 2020. Despite these delays, there’s more urgency and understanding than ever before of our need for ambitious plans combining climate, nature and health imperatives. We now need to move as quickly as the pandemic has.