Here are five big opportunities to start healing our planet, and ourselves.
An Environmental Super Year: Here are five big opportunities to start healing our planet, and ourselves. © TNC

Global Insights | Perspectives

Five Chances to Change the World in 2020

The choices we make this year will shape the critical decade ahead

Every year, a tree’s trunk expands to gain a new ring, pollinators labor for the next bloom, and nests are built and abandoned for warmer climes. Every year, female humpback whales migrate 5,000 kilometers to give birth, and 82 million new people enter the world. Every year, 70 million cars are manufactured, and 4 billion tons of food are produced—30 percent of which never gets eaten.

In these ways, 2020 might feel like every other year. But 2020 also holds unique potential to change the world. This year, the global community is preparing to make path-defining choices for the future of our planet.

Indeed, many in the sustainability movement are now referring to 2020 as an “environmental super year.” From what could be a once-in-lifetime win for our ocean, to accelerated climate action, to a new global framework to protect nature from collapse, the decisions we make in 2020 could very well determine whether we achieve the world’s sustainability goals for 2030—a longstanding milestone that is now just 10 years away.

What’s felt at times like a marathon is now a sprint. But we can still finish the race. Here are five big opportunities to start healing our planet, and ourselves—chances to invest in nature now, and indeed make 2020 a super year.

More than 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, but the ocean’s influence on our planet makes it vital for everyone. Unfortunately, much of our ocean is on life support, collapsing under the impacts of climate change, pollution, overfishing and other threats. And there’s a major obstacle to tackling these challenges—most of the ocean is international waters, outside of any national jurisdiction.

But that could change very soon. This March, the international community could finalize a first-ever High Seas Biodiversity Treaty, a global agreement to collectively protect and manage the ocean outside of national waters—nearly 50 percent of the planet. If this goes right, protecting the high seas will go from being no one’s responsibility to everyone’s.

RELATED READING: What Happens If We Don’t Protect the High Seas?

The journey from farm to table is an increasingly complicated one. Food is a big business—supply chains crisscross the globe, with technology infusing every link, and production is higher than ever. But many of the practices that were designed to feed the planet have produced unintended consequences—from widespread deforestation to water pollution to the destruction of the very soil beneath our feet.

Should we use our power as consumers to push for more sustainable practices? Yes. Should policymakers put smarter incentives in place? Yes. And what’s new this year: more and more companies are embracing voluntary and collective action to improve the sustainability of their supply chains and our food systems writ large. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re seeing increasing recognition that what’s good for the planet is not only good for business—it’s essential.

RELATED READING: Industrial Ag and Conservation: Strange Bedfellows?

The word “biodiversity” may not be a household term, but it is, in short, all life on Earth. It’s the variety of all the genes and species and ecosystems that inhabit our planet. It’s essential for food, medicine, clean air and water. And it is rapidly declining. In fact, we’ve already lost 83 percent of wild mammals on the planet.

But this year we have an unprecedented opportunity to change course. Representatives of the 196 countries party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will gather this October in Kunming, China for a once-per-decade meeting to finalize a new agreement for the global protection of nature. As negotiations continue throughout the year, the key will be setting ambitious targets that not only set aside a larger share of the natural world for protection (30 percent is widely advocated target that TNC supports), but that also address the fundamental causes of biodiversity loss worldwide.

RELATED READING: Biodiversity: Nature by Another Name

We’re now living in a climate crisis. Rising temperatures, rising sea-levels, raging wildfires—the impacts of climate change are already here. What’s really worrying, though, is that the best scientific estimates indicate the worst is yet to come—our current course could be catastrophic.

So, what is there to be hopeful about? For one, the climate conversation is becoming louder and more visible with every passing day—with new voices leading the charge. And in November 2020, countries are indeed expected to unveil more ambitious climate pledges at the UN Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow.

National governments are facing pressure to go beyond the commitments made as part of the Paris Agreement in 2015—and, just as important, to share concrete plans for actually achieving their goals. We know we need to drastically reduce emissions by 2030, and that we need to do more to leverage the power of nature to fight climate change. Every degree of warming we avoid means a more livable planet. COP26 could be our best chance to accelerate action and change our current course.

RELATED READING: A Playbook for Climate Action

Yes, saving the planet is going to be expensive. But not when you compare it to the cost of collapse. And unfortunately, the world has woefully underinvested to date. In fact, current estimates indicate an annual gap of more than $250 billion for global conservation efforts that could help lead to a sustainable future.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Nature provides countless services we depend on, services that would be worth trillions of dollars if we priced them the way we do other goods and services in the economy. A new study, led by the government of the United Kingdom, aims to quantify these services ahead of the CBD meeting in Kunming. Meanwhile, the Paulson Institute, Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy are working in partnership to develop a new roadmap for leveraging nature’s value as a climate and sustainability solution—with the goal of unlocking a new magnitude of public and private investment in nature-based solutions.

RELATED READING: Spending on Nature is the Investment of a Lifetime

You're probably fed up with all of this—and that's a good thing. Climate protests, youth strikes, a 16-year-old emerging as the most trusted voice on climate change—are these signs that action by world leaders isn’t yet where it needs to be? Yes. But they are also signs that more people are waking up to the scale of the challenges we face and taking action into their own hands. 

This could be an unprecedented year for global policymaking—but all these meetings and agreements mean little if we don’t follow through on them. And that will require new leaders, new coalitions, new levels of engagement across our entire society—a new relentless resolve.

So stay angry. Stay engaged. Choose to be part of the solution. This is the year we set a new course. This is the decade we save the planet.