However, business as usual, which delivers incremental changes in policy, financing and ambition, will not solve the underlying causes of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. Only a transformation in the political-economic rules that govern humanity’s relationship with nature will turn around the present trends and begin rebuilding a robust and diverse nature.
Over the course of the next nine months we’ll work with stakeholders to crowdsource an ambitious set of challenges focused on the political-economic rule change required to realise the transformation we need. We invite you to submit your proposals for overarching strategies as well as specific interventions, and engage with us over the course of 2020 to refine them ahead of the culmination of Super Year.
At the dawn of this “Super Year for Nature” we can make three assertions with confidence:
- First, biological diversity and the health of ecosystems have steadily declined since the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was formally adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Indeed, this decline has accelerated over the period.
- Second, the current nature of economic activity means we will never succeed in protecting and restoring nature simply by increasing financing for protection and restoration of biodiversity without reducing the overwhelming trend for our broader economic activities to be destructive. For instance, for every dollar provided to projects reducing emissions from deforestation, $150 is channeled to activity that drives deforestation. Let that sink in: over 99% of our economic engagement with forests is destructive.
- Third, more of the same – policy without ambition, commitments that cannot be enforced, counting on our governments to lead, looking for the private sector to change without changing their incentive systems – is not likely to reverse this sorry trend.
The welcome new attention to biodiversity and ecosystems at the opening of this Super Year clearly offers a unique opportunity. The key question to ask is how to optimally use this opportunity to address the underlying causes and so reverse the catastrophic global trends across biodiversity.
Better Nature offers a fresh new approach to addressing this global challenge, not by replacing current streams of conservation action but by adding significantly to these. It proposes a bold new approach to placing nature at the heart of a reformed political and economic system. Nothing less will enable us to reverse current disastrous trends.
Business As Usual Won’t Deliver
To begin with, we must reluctantly accept that the political will to take resolute action at the scale of the problem is simply not present among our governments. Decades of adopting solemn goals, strategic frameworks, roadmaps, and action plans has not yielded the needed results on the ground, and are evidently inadequate to stem the crisis. Nor has refining the science. The increasingly alarming reports issued by the IPBES are met with a wringing of hands by NGOs and science journalists but have done little to strengthen the resolve of governments to act, or of corporations to ensure that their operations do not damage biodiversity.
The leading global conservation NGOs have either invested much of their efforts on improving the CBD process, or in rallying corporations and movie stars to pressure governments to commit to a higher level of ambition at the CBD. In a world where promises are routinely made and just as routinely broken, can we confidently expect that even more ambitious promises will be respected this time around? Is there a reasonable chance that the concentration of international events on biodiversity conservation in 2020 will result in the systemic change required adequately to address the biodiversity challenge?
The answer to these questions must unfortunately be a resolute “no”. Since 1992, incremental approaches have yielded incremental advances against the background of an exponentially worsening reality. This reality can only be addressed through a systemic shift – a transformative change – in the way we approach conservation.
This is not a call to abandon the CBD process, nor for the conservation majors to abandon their efforts to whip up a head of steam for the CBD’s high-level Conference of the Parties in China in October of this year. It is, however, recognition that this approach, on its own, offers no better prospects of delivering the level of action needed than it has since 1992. If that is so, what does a transformative change look like, and how does Better Nature hope to catalyse it?
Creating A New Normal
First the goal: we must reach the point where human activity that undermines nature is as unacceptable as child labour or slavery are today. We need to put in place a new and widely accepted social norm that makes a pariah of any state, corporation, organisation or individual systematically destroying nature and ecosystems. Conserving biodiversity, restoring degraded landscapes, tending to the health of ecosystems, and rewilding must become new norms for acceptable political, economic and social activity. Violations should result in an unbearably high price in terms of reputation or social license to operate. Corporations and governments must commit to their actions having a positive impact on nature – and they must be held to this promise.
For such a change to come about, it will be necessary to generate a public expectation that would be politically suicidal to ignore. However, to satisfy such a mandate will require profound changes in the way our societies and economies function.
Building A Compelling Narrative
What could be the elements of such a change? We need a new and inspiring narrative to drive the level of civic mobilisation required to realise this change. The present narrative around biodiversity is based on frightening people into action by underlining how grim the situation is and how close we are to irreversible disaster. Experience has demonstrated that this approach simply does not work. Instead, we must craft an invigorating and inspiring narrative based on the fact that, in most cases, biodiversity loss can be reversed with existing knowledge and technology, and this can be done at a fraction of the cost of natural systems collapse. Further, it is a mission that can mobilise people to global action at all levels, from individuals through communities, to corporations and governments. The prospect of restoring nature to health must inspire and excite whereas current narratives simply spread a sense of hopelessness and disaster.
We must accept that many of the actions that drive biodiversity loss are presently hard-wired into the way the economy functions. We will never respect nature as the foundation of development if we cannot align economic activity with the requirements of natural systems. Growing evidence suggests that nature conservation at the global level is incompatible with the neo-liberal economy premised on extraction of resources as inputs to the economy. For example, there is a fundamental misalignment between the behaviour that rewards investors and the behaviour required to conserve ecosystems and biodiversity. Until the two find a substantially greater alignment the functioning of the economy will continue to undermine nature, no matter what the environment officials promise at the CBD.
The Framework for Better Nature Together
Better Nature has chosen three initial fields – finance, legal recourse and applying research – to pursue this transformative change, although the model and approach is transferable to any number of other fields, for example technology. We have chosen these three because they have rapidly increasing momentum, each is critical, and they all have global relevance.
Finance lies at the heart of economic activity and to a large extent shapes it for better or for worse. It also presents a fundamental challenge to the aligning of incentives behind the need to conserve nature. The movement towards accelerating the transition to more sustainable forms of finance has developed strongly over the past few years. The field of climate finance has developed into a highly innovative and sophisticated space; but conservation finance represents a very different set of challenges and the field is in its infancy.
In sync with the new Finance for Biodiversity initiative that Better Nature helped to design, we are exploring both the changes to the rules governing the financial system that would allow greater investment to flow towards biodiversity-friendly activities, and to generation of the demand that would make those rule changes possible.
The changes to the rules and practices currently undermining nature and natural resources will not simply result from human goodwill. Instead, they will only come about if they are championed in a structured manner and challenge the existing rules and practices. A range of tools is available but, so far, inadequately applied to conservation. They include direct legal action (e.g. lawsuits or changes in laws and regulations); soft legal approaches such as new norm development (e.g. “net positive impact” pledges or transparency and disclosure; and action at the level of shareholders and investors, ratings agencies, etc.. In truth, all of these means of recourse must be mustered and deployed together.
Vast quantities of valuable and targeted research is produced every year, much of it pointing to the implications of the findings and recommending action based on them. In the majority of cases, these recommendations lie idle on the shelf. The continuum from research to action breaks at the limits of the research silos – this must be corrected.
Better Nature is developing an approach in which it allies with major research initiatives to design and put in place a transmission belt between important research findings and the translation of these into proposals for action. It intends in this way to close a significant gap that explains how so little of the excellent science underlying our understanding of nature and its role is deployed in service of practical, tangible real-world action.
None of these pathways will lead to transformative change without a substantial and organised civic mobilisation and commitment to change. We must reach the point where the electability of public officials depends on their achievements in restoring biodiversity and defending natural ecosystems. This will require a major shift, but absent change at this scale, our attempts to drive meaningful change will be futile. Such a shift will require generating a public demand for environmental responsibility that cannot be ignored by governments or corporations. The viability of the former, and the license to operate of the latter, must link closely to their performance on nature conservation and restoration. We need more movements of civic action and indignation – like the climate strikes or Extinction Rebellion. Moreover, they must be channeled to support resolute and positive action, or they risk dissipating, being co-opted, or growing violent and discredited.
Nothing less than broad demand for action to protect nature will turn around the present trends and begin rebuilding a robust and diverse nature – the heart of any viable economy. 2020 will have been a Super Year for Nature only if we can generate this movement worldwide.
Better Nature Together welcomes comments and responses to this thought-piece. In the first instance please respond using this form. As responses are received we’ll bring commentators together to continue discussion, refine and improve the proposals and discuss and agree on next steps.