Looking ahead: After lost year, urgency rises for climate, nature policy

© Michael Christopher Brown

It was supposed to be a “super year for nature.” 

In 2019, world leaders and environmentalists billed 2020 as the year that major global talks would chart an ambitious new course for protecting the climate, the oceans and biodiversity. 

That, of course, never came to be. Like everything else, international negotiations on climate and nature were put on hold to stem the spread of coronavirus. 

This year, humanity must make up for lost time, two Conservation International experts say. 

With world leaders once again set to convene at a series of environmental negotiations later this year, Conservation International climate policy expert Lina Barrera and climate scientist Dave Hole spoke to Conservation News about the year ahead, and what has to happen. 

Question: How can nature help countries meet their climate goals? 

Dave Hole (DH): Nature underpins everything we depend on, including a stable climate. Forests, grasslands and wetlands have the extraordinary ability to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere. Any action that conserves, restores or uses these ecosystems more sustainably can be considered a “natural” climate solution. And research shows that these natural climate solutions can provide at least 30 percent of the emissions reductions necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. That’s massive, especially when you consider all the other benefits these ecosystems provide for people, such as food, water and clean air. 

Lina Barrera (LB): This year, countries are submitting new climate goals under the Paris Agreement. It’s critical for countries to integrate natural climate solutions, like stopping deforestation or restoring mangroves and coastal areas, into their updated goals. This will help ensure that natural climate solutions are prioritized when it comes to making policy decisions. Conservation International has developed a series of guides to help countries do this, with recommendations that are tailored to different social, political and economic contexts. 

Q: Doesn’t it cost a lot of money to protect nature? 

DH: Yes, it does cost money to protect nature — but, in the long run, it will cost us way more if we destroy it. The wealth of a nation is greater than just what its people or businesses can produce; it’s also about a country’s “natural capital” — the plants, animals and ecosystems that provide value through a variety of benefits and services. This includes everything from the life-saving role mangroves play in buffering coastal communities against storms, to the insects and other animals which pollinate one-third of our food supply, contributing billions of dollars to the global economy each year.

If countries are not incorporating natural capital into their decision-making, they may be missing risks and opportunities to grow. The good news is many countries are beginning to wake up to the vital contributions nature makes to their economies and are finding ways to actively include these contributions in their national accounting systems – a process called “natural capital accounting.” 

For example, Conservation International is currently working with the government of Liberia and NASA to use satellite imagery to better assess the value of that country’s ecosystems — with the goal of informing its national policies. These types of efforts can help reshape the way countries approach development — moving from exploiting nature to conserving and sustainably managing it. We are also working to create the first-ever map that identifies the places around the world where people depend on nature the most to help prioritize strategies for how to conserve it. 

LB: This map will help inform leaders when they meet later this year — COVID-permitting — to negotiate new goals to protect Earth’s biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is the planet’s biodiversity — from tiny organisms in fertile soil to healthy trees — that gives nature its ability to effectively store carbon and slow climate change. However, Earth’s biodiversity is currently declining at an unprecedented rate. When biodiversity is lost or an ecosystem is degraded, nature can no longer store as much carbon — and its capacity to provide water, food and health benefits to people is also diminished. 

Q: What steps do countries and businesses need to take in 2021 to prevent that from happening?  

LB: There is no time for incremental actions — governments and companies must make transformational changes at national and industry levels. In 2020, research by Conservation International scientists helped identify certain places on Earth that we simply cannot afford to destroy due to the vast amounts of carbon they store. Now, countries must start implementing policies and on-the-ground initiatives to ensure that those places are either conserved or managed sustainably. Across the private sector, businesses must reduce the impact of their operations on biodiversity by sourcing materials that are sustainably produced and limiting deforestation.

DH: Exactly. We need climate action at a scale and pace that is unprecedented. Luckily, we know what steps need to be taken. Right now, we are working to create a roadmap that will help determine “who” — from farmers to foresters to consumers — must do “what” and “where” for nature to contribute to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). These actions include protecting mangroves and peatlands, restoring forests and wetlands, and sustainably managing our farmlands.

Q: Do you think the pandemic will affect countries’ abilities to achieve their climate and biodiversity goals? 

LB: The global economy has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and some countries may be hesitant to commit to more ambitious goals. However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that achieving those climate and biodiversity goals can stimulate long-term economic growth — from generating green jobs to preventing natural disasters that could cost billions of dollars in damages. 

DH: And let’s not forget that protecting nature could help prevent future pandemics. A recent study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that reducing deforestation, restricting the global wildlife trade and monitoring the emergence of new viruses before they spread, could decrease the risk of future pandemics by nearly 30 percent — with a 10-year investment that is 50 times less expensive than the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date.

Protecting nature is a win-win-win for bolstering the global economy, stabilizing the climate and improving human health. 


Dave Hole is the vice president for global solutions at Conservation International. Lina Barrera is the vice president for international policy at Conservation International. 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: Mangroves in Liberia (© Michael Christopher Brown)

Further reading: