3 reasons for climate hope, from the cutting edge of tech and finance

© Benjamin Drummond

From an animal “selfie”-sharing platform to an investment fund for climate-smart businesses, 2019 saw more than its share of innovations in conservation.

But as climate breakdown accelerates — putting communities and, increasingly, the global economy at risk — can technology and finance keep up? 

Experts say yes — and are offering up some promising tech and finance innovations in 2020 to help protect nature and tackle the climate crisis. Here are some that Conservation International is working on. 

1. Charting nature’s protection 

From water supply to biodiversity to climate stability, the benefits that nature provides are often taken for granted. But identifying the sources of economic, ecological and social services that nature provides — referred to as “natural capital” — is vital for making the case to businesses, communities and countries to protect nature.   

“Decisions by governments or businesses or people to deplete natural resources could end up hurting a nation’s people and economy in the long run,” said Mike Mascia, the head of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “Our goal at Conservation International is to help countries map their stores of natural capital to create the best policies to protect it.” 

In 2020, Conservation International's scientists and partners, including the Natural Capital Project, will finalize a global map of places where natural capital is most crucial to conserve. At the UN Conference of Parties (COP) in China this October, world leaders, scientists and conservation experts will use this map to help chart a course for protecting global biodiversity and reaching sustainable development targets by 2050.

“We will use our findings to make recommendations to world leaders on how much — and where — to focus efforts to conserve critical natural capital globally,” Mascia explained. 

“This work will direct the next generation of conservation investment and, crucially, will ensure a more comprehensive assessment of the value of nature in helping countries develop sustainably.”

2. A new alliance could help connect tech with conservation 

In a recent scientific paper, a range of technology experts interested in conservation urged a decidedly low-tech approach to promoting it.

Their proposal: Create an international organization overseeing conservation technology. 

“With innovative tools ranging from space-based satellites to advanced monitoring systems, we can help fill in the blanks for research about our planet and climate,” explained Eric Fegraus, senior director of conservation technology at Conservation International and a co-author of the paper.

One of the biggest roadblocks to advancing these tools, Fegraus explained, is that many organizations are struggling to apply new technologies at the speed and scale necessary to keep up with the world’s most pressing environmental issues — but a new alliance between technologists, NGOs, the private sector, policymakers and investors could help change that.

“In 2020, we need to unite conservation technology under a more organized structure across all different industries to have the greatest possible impact,” said Fegraus. “This could be accomplished by expanding an existing technology network — such as wildlabs.net — or by creating a new entity altogether.”

This type of collaborative technology network has already proven hugely effective for wildlife conservation — through a ground-breaking web-based platform called Wildlife Insights. The platform enables researchers — and literally anyone else — to view, share and analyze animal photos taken by motion-detector cameras, known as camera traps. These photos can help researchers determine where endangered species congregate and how they behave in the wild, information that is critical to crafting smart policies and business practices for wildlife conservation that can protect animals from poaching and habitat destruction. 

Fegraus contends that all conservation technologies could have a similarly outsize impact if they were brought together under one global entity.

“There are more and more impactful conservation technologies coming online every year — however, they all face similar challenges related to scaling, implementation and financial support,” Fegraus said. 

“A broad alliance could help connect developers and conservationists with sustainable finance, business planning and advisory services, and access to technological support. In 2020, we must pool together our scientific skills, funds and engineering minds to better utilize existing technologies and to develop new technologies that create a cleaner, healthier planet.” 

3. Seed money for small businesses saving the planet 

The latest Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum lists environmental risks as the top five threats to the global economy — a first in the survey’s history. 

Increasingly, scientists and economists are proposing a new strategy: investing in businesses that support nature.

“Entrepreneurs all over the world are creating solutions that have the potential to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges,” said Agustin Silvani, senior vice president of conservation finance at Conservation International. “We must work toward channeling more private capital to these businesses and projects that are restoring critical natural resources and tangibly improving hundreds of millions of lives.”

A new investment fund, Conservation International (CI) Ventures, is helping the private sector achieve this by supporting small- to medium-sized enterprises that have built their businesses around conservation — and connecting them with larger-scale funding they would not otherwise have access to.

“A crucial part of conservation is investing in businesses and helping people build their economies,” Silvani said. “Our new investment fund will continue to demonstrate to investors that underwriting conservation isn't risky — it’s actually one of the best things that companies can do to protect their supply chains as climate change accelerates.”

Established in August 2019, CI Ventures already supports five conservation-minded enterprises, ranging from coffee farms to family-owned food companies. The fund currently provides more than US$ 1.55 million in loans and US$ 8.9 million co-financing from partners to businesses that operate in the forests, oceans and grasslands where Conservation International works. 

CI Ventures aims to deploy an additional US$ 3 million in low-interest loans in 2020 to businesses that are striving to create sustainable jobs for their communities, while simultaneously protecting the nature they rely on. By 2028, Conservation International and partners will invest a total of US$ 200 million in loans, supporting more than 60,000 livelihoods around the world. 

A portion of the profit generated by the enterprises supported by CI Ventures will go into paying off their loans, and the returned capital will then be reinvested into more businesses that are trying to make a difference for their communities — and conservation. 

While this fund will help grow smaller companies that contribute to healthy ecosystems, Silvani emphasized the need to expand conservation across all of finance. 

“This is the year science tells us we need to bend the emissions curve downward and the same applies to finance. ‘Green’ finance — which supports low-carbon, sustainable development — needs to overtake ‘brown’ — which supports high-carbon development — if we are to meet our climate commitments,” Silvani explained. 

“We have reached a tipping point in terms of making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; 2020 should be the year we reach a tipping point in turning those promises into action.”


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Badru Mugerwa, Lawrence Tumugabirwe and Aventino Nkwasibwe set camera trap, Uganda. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Further reading: