If your household is anything like mine, parenting through the pandemic has come with a heavy dose of self-medicating with streaming media. Science fiction has been the drug of choice for my kids, and a year into working and schooling from home, I am not ashamed to admit that I often join them in ending our days immersing ourselves in worlds that are not our own. But while sci-fi offers some amount of escape, it really doesn’t offer much comfort. For even in the stories where our heroes find their way to a better world, they only seem to get there after enduring violent upheaval or apocalyptic collapse. Our imaginations can’t seem to conjure plot lines where brave souls rely on good governance, sound science, and empowered citizenry to birth a brighter future. Can we only imagine a boldly better world rising like a phoenix from the ashes of our own devastation?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot these days in our environmental conservation work, since the multiple, intersecting crises of the past year seem to have left us perched on the edge of a precipice – poised to make choices with the potential to either help us take flight towards the new world that we want, or to plunge us even more firmly into the abyss of planetary collapse. Because for all the suffering the past year has wrought – and for many, particularly those in the most vulnerable communities, the suffering has indeed been unfathomable – it has also delivered a moment of reckoning ripe with opportunity. It has exposed the ways that the interconnected problems of nature loss, climate change, and inequality amplify our fragility and diminish our resilience. And in so doing, it has opened the possibility of change at a scale, speed, and systemic depth that previously seemed beyond our reach. In the ambitious pledges of our world’s leaders to “build back better,” I can see the tantalizing prospect of a path to a brighter future that averts the sci-fi trope detour through the valley of full-scale societal collapse.
But before we start congratulating ourselves on a successful course correction, we need to take a hard look at the danger signs warning us that the old world isn’t ready to give way to the new so readily. Systems change is both difficult and valuable precisely because systems are so good at resisting transformation. And in our current system, we are locked into thinking about economic prosperity as something that lives in tension with respecting planetary boundaries and fostering equitable development. As a result, when we look beneath the rhetoric of a “green recovery,” we come face to face with the sobering prospect of trillions invested into development tracks that will actually lock us further into our present trajectory of decline. As Vivid Economics explained in their report on this issue, “Our analysis of COVID-19 stimulus commitments to date suggests that investments are further entrenching unsustainable economic pathways, resulting in a high risk of stranded assets, accelerated climate change and continued depletion of natural capital.”
So if 2020 was a year for the history books, we need to make 2021 one for the future – the future we want. This means going beyond just pushing back on the most egregious stimulus transgressions, where politicians have used the near-term punch of the pandemic as a convenient excuse for rolling back environmental protections or doubling down on resource grabs and habitat conversion. Instead, it demands a systemic shift that puts investment in nature and equity at the center of efforts to revive economies and societies to build a more resilient future. Or as the Dagupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity put it, “The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it.” In 2021, we have timely opportunities to embrace this solution by reshaping funding flows, realigning priority policy frameworks, and recentering on people and place.
Reshaping funding flows
Let’s start with the firehose of stimulus funding being unleashed to jumpstart economies around the world. These investments represent an opportunity to catalyze a shift towards a nature-positive, climate-neutral, and more equitable economy. Though only a small fraction of stimulus funding committed to date can be characterized as supporting this shift, those innovative investments illustrate opportunities that could be embraced at a much larger scale. They include: creating jobs through interventions that preserve and enhance natural capital (e.g., restoration, citizen stewardship of protected and conserved areas, sustainable agriculture, green infrastructure); tying private sector recovery packages to measures that will place key industries on a path to internalizing their externalities; supporting green technological innovation; and deploying public capital to crowd-in private investment in emerging sustainable business models and financing mechanisms.
Of course, a serious conversation about reshaping funding flows must also take aim at the nature-depleting subsidies that by most estimates destroy several trillion dollars in value each year in the name of encouraging economic activity. And while the prospect of weaning ourselves from these well-established structures is daunting, in the near-term, there are meaningful opportunities to redesign subsidies so that they can yield environmental benefits while preserving or even enhancing beneficiary flows. For example, reorienting producer support payments towards incentivizing avoidance of habitat conversion and investment in regenerative practices can deliver positive returns for both people and planet.
Finally, it’s worth pausing to consider some of the areas where both public and private funding are beginning to gravitate, where we can see the potential risks associated with even well-intentioned solutions that do not sufficiently integrate nature and equity at their core. For example, investment in afforestation (planting trees in areas that have not previously been forested) has gained momentum as a climate solution appealing for its seeming simplicity: we can use trees like “machines” that capture carbon from the atmosphere. But viewed through a nature-centered lens that places the intervention in the context of dynamic ecosystems, afforestation runs the risk of actually making things worse. This is not only because it has the potential to divert focus from efforts to protect critical carbon stores in intact ecosystems, but also because recent studies suggest that afforestation initiatives in some biomes risk releasing more soil carbon than they take up in new storage. Similarly, the mounting stampede towards the voluntary nature-based carbon off-set market holds promise, but also peril, which can only be avoided by carefully integrating nature, equity, and climate in the solution. To ensure that the nature-based carbon credits really deliver net benefits for humanity, we need to ensure that supply is rooted in governance and policy that ensures protection of standing forests, that demand comes from buyers who are aggressively pursuing abatement opportunities within their own companies, and that benefit-sharing safeguards the interests of local communities on the frontlines of habitat degradation and climate change.
Realigning priority policy frameworks
Beyond the near-term chance to convert stimulus funding into a down-payment on a better future, 2021 also offers critical opportunities to set the guiding policy frameworks needed to steer us towards the world that we want. Last year was supposed to be the start of a decade of action on sustainable development, climate, and biodiversity – ten years that would represent our last, best chance to put the world on track. The intervening pandemic delayed the tasks of setting this new agenda, but also gifted us with a greater sense of urgency and commitment. In 2021, we’ll turn back to the High-Level Forum on Sustainable Development (SDGs), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) with an opportunity not only to raise the level of ambition achievable under each, but importantly, to integrate their goals consistent with the systemic change we seek.
And while it may sound mundane, one of the most important things we can do towards that end is to use the existing policy architecture of the UNFCCC Paris framework to incentivize countries to develop spatially explicit plans for achieving their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The best spatially explicit plans start by mapping data about the values that natural ecosystems deliver in specific places, add an understanding of dynamic human use pressures and patterns, and then work from policy targets to zone conservation and development accordingly. By having countries map their mitigation and development intentions, we can understand how proposed economic pathways will impact carbon storage, food and water provision, and other critical natural services. This provides a basis for managing the co-benefits and trade-offs – optimizing so-called “nature-based solutions” for climate mitigation and human development. And while spatial plans are by no means a silver bullet, the simple act of mapping policy targets can be powerful in terms of placing nature and equity at the foundation of economic development, by creating visibility into the allocation of finite ecosystem resources, as well as the community-level distribution of benefits and burdens. Perhaps most significantly, spatial plans also make it easier for the entire ecosystem of actors to operationalize integrated climate, nature, and sustainable development goals, and to be held accountable for choices that are inconsistent with them. As the World Economic Forum’s Future of Nature and Business report states, “Geospatially explicit frameworks for national commitments make commitments more realistic and are indispensable to ensuring effective civil society and business engagement.” With spatially explicit policy frameworks in place, implementation requirements become clearer, making it easier to align a whole range of additional policy levers (e.g., trade regulations, overseas development assistance financing) and private sector interventions (e.g., supply chain sourcing, green lending/financing) in forceful support.
Recentering on people and place
At the heart of the interlinked crises that loom over us today lies our collective acquiescence, if not buy-in, to the illusion that technology, globalization, and access to a wealth of material consumption have freed us from our underlying dependence on place: on our planet and its finite capacities and resources. Indeed, the events of 2020 were powerful in the way that they sequentially pierced that illusion, reminding us that we are all only one zoonotic spill-over, wildfire, flood, or freeze event away from being left vulnerable to the consequences of throwing the natural world out of balance.
Fortunately, many of the most important places that we can protect in the natural world are also the ones where the connection between people and place remains strongest. At Moore, we can see this in many of the places where our partners have worked effectively, for example, the Amazon, the Arctic, the Great Bear Rainforest and Sea, and Bristol Bay. In these areas, the strength of the connection between people and place forms a strong foundation for building solutions that can get the balance right. For this reason, scaling bottom-up, place-based conservation is an essential part of achieving the systemic change we need for the world that we want. Indeed, while top-down policy and market interventions are also critically important, they risk falling short or even inadvertently pushing the system in the wrong direction when not integrated with place-based solutions that strengthen protections, improve management and governance, and engage local communities. And protecting these places yields benefits for human well-being on multiple dimensions and scales. For example, protecting the forests of the Amazon supports direct sustenance and livelihoods for forest peoples, but also contributes significantly to climate stabilization and pandemic risk reduction at a global level.
Thus, as we emerge from the crisis of the pandemic, and move beyond short-term recovery measures, one of the soundest investments we can make in building a more resilient future is to increase support for those who are working on the ground to protect these special places. As a recent report from the International Monetary Fund notes, “. . . spending to sustain natural ecosystems exerts powerful positive ripple effects on the economies that practice it: for every dollar spent in conservation, almost seven more are generated in the larger economy in the medium term.”
So, as we stand at the edge of the precipice here in 2021, I remain hopeful that it’s not too late to spare my children from a future that looks like the dystopias of the sci-fi they devour. I imagine them someday telling their grandchildren how the 2020 pandemic of their childhood turned out to be the turning-point from which we started in earnest to breathe life into the world that we need and want. And I remind myself to cut short their next binge-watching marathon in favor of a hike that will re-immerse them in the natural world around them, so that we can each be a small part of the systemic change that the world needs.
Aileen Lee is the chief program officer for environmental conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.