Before COVID-19 sickened tens of millions and upended the economy, the UN planned to convene more than 190 countries for the purpose of tackling another set of urgent and interconnected global crises: climate change and biodiversity loss. In fact, the series of events originally on the 2020 global policy agenda had many anticipating an “environmental super year” poised to deliver real momentum for a healthier world.
While this year did not establish the international frameworks desired, it may in fact have presented unforeseen opportunities to accelerate a shift toward a zero-emissions, nature-positive future. As nations mobilize trillions of dollars for economic relief, coordinating a strategic green recovery could help keep global temperatures within a safe range and protect nature in the decades to come.
This month, world leaders will gather virtually at the UK Climate Summit to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. My hope is that this signals strong government commitment to advancing a broad range of climate solutions, including implementing clean energy technology and protecting key natural resources. These efforts must work in concert, not conflict: We need to rapidly decarbonize the global economy toward zero emissions and halt the destruction of natural ecosystems, while also restoring and sustainably managing landscapes.
We’re already seeing signs of progress. For example, The Race to Zero campaign—a global alliance of businesses, cities, regions, investors and universities committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050—represents actors responsible for nearly 25 percent of global CO₂ emissions and more than 50 percent of the world’s GDP. If governments can follow private sector leadership from alliances like these, I am hopeful that we can scale our efforts to the magnitude of action our planet requires.
The good news is that the financial investment needed for green recovery is already available. As of late summer 2020, governments around the world had pledged more than US$12 trillion dollars to COVID-19 economic relief.
To put that in perspective, a recent study estimates it will require $1.4 trillion dollars of annual global investment in clean energy to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Such a commitment could fund a buildout of solar and wind, more carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles, and other carbon-saving efforts to put the world on a path to net-zero emissions by the middle of this century.
However, a recent analysis by my colleagues at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) suggests that current stimulus plans fall short of addressing the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Only about 30 percent of approved "green recovery" funding will go to sectors that have a large and lasting impact on climate change, biodiversity and air quality. Similarly, our analysis suggests that of the plans laid out in 16 of the G20 countries, current strategies would have a net negative environmental impact. Clearly, there is a lot of work left to do.
Our current economic models have undervalued the importance of nature, but protecting and restoring natural places is one of the greatest long-term investments we can make for our societies right now. We urgently need to protect, restore and improve large areas of habitat, particularly in regions where the highest biodiversity, the highest concentrations of emerging infectious diseases and the largest human populations are all found. In addition to ensuring a habitable planet for all life on Earth, a systemic transformation to a nature-friendly economy could create 395 million jobs and deliver $10.1 trillion of economic value by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The financial pathways leading to a nature-positive future are straightforward. Getting there requires ensuring net-zero deforestation supply chains; providing new public and private funds to invest in nature-based solutions; shifting subsidy mechanisms to reward nature-based solutions; and mobilizing finance for green infrastructure.
One sector in particular stands to guide our path forward, for better or worse. At the moment, approximately $500 billion dollars in agricultural subsidies perpetuate unsustainable food and land use systems, which not only lead to environmental degradation, but also poor nutrition and income inequality. However, by redirecting harmful subsidies toward sustainable practices, including regenerative agriculture, governments can accelerate international climate and biodiversity progress.
Many of us kicked off 2020 full of optimism, hoping for greater ambition for our planet’s future. Though the international meetings designed to herald collective action were delayed until 2021, we have seen moments of courage from governments and the corporate sector this year that indicate their commitment to a better future. Now, it is imperative that each of us continue to hold them accountable for mobilizing significant resources to secure the vision we want—and urgently need.