When nature thrives, our own health and economic security thrive too. Nature gives us healthy and diverse diets, medication and clean air and water. It buffers us from rising sea levels, unbearable heat, wildfires and pandemics.
That’s when nature is at its best - conserved and given space to regenerate. In recent decades, however, deforestation, biodiversity loss and pollution have destroyed the natural capital on which we rely, helping to accelerate rather than mitigate climate change and putting us at greater risk from its impacts.
But we can change that, by making the 2020s an era of recovery and regeneration. By choosing to build an economy in which, by 2030, nature is absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, supporting jobs and livelihoods, and allowing us to thrive in spite of climate shocks.
This challenge calls for the more inclusive, networked form of multilateralism that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for, which recognizes that we live in an interconnected world and includes support from civil society, cities, businesses, local governments and young people. This is why my role was created - to mobilize actors outside of national governments to drive bigger, faster transformation.
Governments have the opportunity to put this multilateralism in motion this year. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) COP15 summit in China in October could set an international framework that catalyzes the reversal of biodiversity loss in the 2020s. The UN COP26 climate summit in Britain in November could then strengthen global efforts to halve emissions and regenerate nature by 2030. That will help us to safely reach zero emissions in the 2040s and simultaneously build resilience for those most at risk from the impacts of climate change.
This is why my role was created - to mobilize actors outside of national governments to drive bigger, faster transformation.
But businesses, investors, cities and regions cannot afford to wait for those political signals. They need to anticipate the transformation by committing to working with rather than against nature - thereby giving governments the confidence to raise their targets even higher. This, in turn, will encourage the private sector and local governments to move even faster, which allows governments to set even bolder measures - and so on, fuelling an ever-growing ambition loop.
This is how we will recover better and faster from the health and economic blow of Covid-19. ‘Nature-positive’ work could generate 395 million jobs and $10.1 trillion in business opportunities by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. That includes using sensors and satellites to increase crop yields, restoring mangroves, diversifying diets with more fruits and vegetables, and expanding renewable energy sources.
Africa’s Great Green Wall project, for example, aims to create 350,000 jobs, provide food security for 20 million people and sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon by 2030 - in one of the world’s poorest regions. The project is designed to halt the spread of the Sahara Desert by restoring deforested and degraded land across 8,000 kilometres, including in Ethiopia, Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
In particular, businesses, investors and local and national governments need to work with the developing countries that are home to some of the world’s biggest natural wealth - such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. These six countries share the Congo Basin, which spans 314 million hectares of old, dense, ecologically valuable primary rainforest. Protecting an additional 1 percent of the basin’s forested land would preserve some 230 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (roughly a third of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions).
Nature’s place in the race
In a nature-positive economy, forests, peatlands, mangroves and agricultural land will become a net sink for carbon dioxide, rather than a source of emissions. If we start now, the benefits will boost efforts to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, such as eradicating poverty and hunger and creating jobs, according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The most straightforward and cost-effective way to do this is to preserve, protect and restore natural environments where possible - keeping terrestrial natural carbon stocks intact - and to farm and graze in harmony with nature. That has to happen as the population grows and incomes rise, pushing food demand up by an expected 50 percent, according to the World Resources Institute.
The UN Race to Zero and Race to Resilience campaigns are elevating the role that nature can play in accelerating both emissions reductions and adaptation to climate change. Members of the Race to Zero, launched in 2020, commit to following robust criteria for reaching zero emissions, including near-term targets and regular progress reports. The campaign is challenging sectors that work with nature to drive breakthroughs in the early 2020s, including commitments to end deforestation, shift to regenerative agriculture and restore degraded lands. It is also working with financial institutions to commit to deforestation-free investment portfolios by 2025 and add nature-positive investment to their decarbonization targets.
The Race to Resilience, launched this year, is mobilizing businesses, investors and local governments to support locally-led climate adaptation work. Building resilience inherently requires us to value work and products that protect and regenerate nature. The campaign’s first partner initiatives focus on issues ranging from alleviating water stress, to restoring mangroves and land, to helping financial institutions invest in smallholder farms.
We can turn this around, if we prioritize long-term public, environmental and economic health above short-term gains.
Some business leaders are already striking out. The One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition brings major companies like Danone, Nestlé, Mars, Google, Unilever, Walmart and Microsoft together to scale up regenerative agriculture, use their products to boost cultivated biodiversity and diets, and protect and restore natural ecosystems in this decade. Importantly, the coalition intends to disclose science-based and measurable targets during the CBD COP15, alongside policy proposals. As Race to Zero members, Danone and Nestlé also aim to cut their direct and indirect emissions to zero by 2050, with short-term targets for getting on track this decade.
The Business for Nature coalition, meanwhile, brings businesses and conservation organizations together to step up calls for government policies to reverse nature loss this decade - warning that $44 trillion, or half the GDP, is at risk.
The natural systems that supply the oxygen we breathe and food we eat are “on the verge of breakdown”, the Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity warned this year. Nature is an asset we have consistently undervalued, in favour of polluting and destructive development. We can turn this around, if we prioritize long-term public, environmental and economic health above short-term gains.
If we invest in our natural capital, our returns will flow in the form of good jobs, stronger public health, cleaner air and water, healthier diets, emissions reductions and greater resilience to the impacts of climate change.