And just like that it’s 2022, another new year in a critical decade for the planet. But this year feels a bit different from the previous two—younger voices are entering the chat, delayed global policy events meant to make 2020 a super-year are moving forward, and wonky concepts like conservation finance and debt-restructuring are increasingly mainstream.
Still, it’s going to take a lot more work to gain momentum for a more sustainable and equitable world, and we’re filled with hope and anticipation for the progress this new year could bring. Read on to explore three conversations that could (and, arguably, should) dominate the environmental and sustainability agenda over the next 12 months.
Because effective action requires all of us.
Who gets to set the world’s conservation agenda? International convenings are overwhelmingly dominated by the economic powerhouses of the world. The majority of financiers and the big environmental NGOs (including TNC) tend to be based in these countries and benefit from their economic structures.
As a result, many of the communities who bear the brunt of today’s environmental crises—and the younger generations who will face even greater challenges in the future—end up having the least influence on global policy. But look no further than the protests outside the recent UN climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) for signs of change. Many protestors were not yet born during the first UN climate convention in 1995—and they’re angry at how little progress has been made in the last 26 years.
An informal delegation of Indigenous activists from around the globe also led protests at COP26, denouncing their exclusion from environmental decision-making to date. That exclusion is particularly troubling given that lands managed by Indigenous communities support up to 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity and 17 percent of Earth’s natural carbon stores. Many have been stripped of their land rights over centuries, while others face increasing violence defending their communities from illegal logging, mining and agricultural incursion.
“As Indigenous Peoples and local communities ground us in place-based knowledge and experiences, making their presence known in the global arena, it is increasingly clear that now is the moment for radical and bold action in how we care for Mother Earth,” says Andrea Akall'eq Burgess, TNC’s Global Director of Conservation in Partnership with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. “In place of crisis and chaos, let us be unwavering in our commitments to human rights, sustainable benefit sharing and lasting, durable solutions that originate from stewardship and abundance.”
Human rights and environmental protection go hand in hand. Environmental stakeholders cannot address the biodiversity and climate crises without also supporting the people who are best positioned to take action—and we can’t claim to support human rights while simultaneously exposing vulnerable communities to greater risks. As we begin another year of this make-or-break decade for nature, governments, businesses and civil society will have big opportunities to build a bigger tent for conservation—many of which will come down to reshaping policy and finance priorities.
Because Earth needs swift, system-wide action.
In 2020, the global policy agenda included a series of gatherings intended to facilitate collaborative action on three environmental imperatives: climate change, biodiversity and the high seas. But approximately 24 months after we rang in this anticipated "environmental super-year," the pandemic has prevented those events from concluding. Now, with a few rescheduled global policy events in the rearview, and the long-delayed UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) tentatively scheduled for late spring, the end of the super-year feels close—and it could shape environmental action for decades to come.
Climate action is the most widely acknowledged environmental imperative, and November’s UN climate conference (COP26) was perhaps the most publicly visible climate event since these annual meetings began in 1995. But its outcome? Well, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it, the Glasgow Climate Pact “is an important step, but it is not enough.”
“Enough” will require a focus on the implementation of the (often voluntary) pledges made so far, and there are a few big opportunities on the 2022 agenda that could enable progress. The Glasgow Pact calls on countries to report their progress on emission reduction targets at COP27 in Egypt later this year—a full three years earlier than originally planned. And global leaders will also have the chance to increase ambitions, which is especially needed with regard to climate finance (more on that below).
Then there are the lesser known, but equally important UN conferences on biodiversity and the high seas. Delegates at UN Biodiversity’s COP15 will meet with the ambitious goal of approving a new global framework for the protection of nature through 2050, and there’s growing momentum for a “30x30” goal (i.e. protecting 30 percent of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030). And it’s the UN High Seas treaty (AKA the BBNJ Treaty) that’s perhaps most unprecedented—and overlooked. If successful, it would be the first binding agreement to protect those vast expanses of ocean that lay beyond national waters. Together, the high seas represent half of the planet, but they have historically functioned like the Wild Westdue to a lack of effective global regulations on unsustainable activity.
As with climate action, Indigenous leaders are raising concerns about how their communities will be affected by the implementation of new global policy outcomes. “Understandably, many worry that new biodiversity protection goals at a global scale could repeat past errors—for instance, locking away large swaths of land, which often reinforces colonial structures and contributes to inequity,” says TNC’s CEO Jennifer Morris. “Conservation for the coming decades must be founded in authentic partnerships with the Indigenous Peoples and local communities that have traditionally stewarded these places."
Two years ago, we anticipated 2020 could be a “super-year” for nature marked by robust international commitments—and followed by a decade of concerted global action to implement those commitments. We are now two years into that decade of action, but hopeful that negotiations for important agreements that have dragged on will conclude with ambitious pledges. But while raising ambition is good and well, our shared planet ultimately responds to action—not ambitions.
Because ambitious action requires funding.
As TNC's Jennifer Morris says, "conservation without finance is conversation." And when it comes to funding environmental action, we’ve still got a long way to go. Financing Nature, a 2020 report co-authored by the Paulson Institute, TNC, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, calculates that the world is currently falling short of what’s needed for biodiversity protection and restoration to the tune of US$700 billion every year.
And while there’s certainly a lot of overlap between actions to address the biodiversity and climate emergencies, there’s still more funding needed to adequately address action. Some encouraging finance pledges emerged from COP26 in Glasgow, but this year, global leaders must hash out the details needed to deliver transformation on the ground swiftly and at scale.
That means agreeing strong and effective rules on carbon markets, as well as continuing negotiations on payments from wealthier countries to support adaption measures in poorer countries—an effort that has been contentious and delayed. So far, the richer countries that have historically emitted more emissions that cause climate change have pledged $100 billion in annual funding, but have yet to deliver on that commitment. Meanwhile, many experts say the overdue funding is insufficient to fund necessary adaption measures for historically excluded countries, which have emitted far less since industrialization but face outsized climate impacts.
We’ve seen some signs of progress in recent months. The latest rules on international carbon markets agreed at COP26 could open new funding streams for a broad range of climate solutions. And national policy developments, including a recent infrastructure bill in the United States, have dedicated billions in funding for conservation measures. That said, making a substantial dent in the funding gap ultimately comes down to reframing entire economies in ways that embed nature at the heart of financial decision making—which is to say, real progress in 2022 and beyond will require recognizing nature’s true value in our lives.