Our poor treatment of nature has caught up with us, but nature-based solutions can wake humanity from the nightmare of planetary crisis
Humanity has sleepwalked into the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Now, the dream of taking endlessly from the planet is over. Now, we are living the nightmare: extreme and deadly weather, dirty air, water shortages, plastic-filled oceans, degraded land, species extinction and much more.
Nature gives us everything: from food to oxygen, from climate regulation to the resources that keep businesses afloat. Once these are gone, we cannot replace them. It is time to wake up and heal our sick planet and ourselves. It is time to back nature-based solutions.
The international community has begun showing signs of waking up. At the 2021 climate meeting in Glasgow, world leaders committed to conserving and restoring forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. New ways of investing and doing business were promised. At the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2022, we saw a strong commitment to acting for nature. The UN General Assembly in July recognised the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
When we consider the benefits of backing nature, these moves make resounding sense. Nature-based solutions – actions to protect, conserve, restore and sustainably use ecosystems for the benefit of humanity and nature – can provide 40% of climate change mitigation efforts until 2030.
Nature-based solutions provide barriers to storms, floods and zoonotic diseases. They promote sustainable agriculture: controlling pests, fertilising soil, pollinating crops and reducing emissions. They help cities become low carbon and resilient, from green roofs to trees and agriculture within cities. They help Indigenous peoples and local communities thrive. They provide green, lasting jobs that do not harm the planet.
G20 leaders can do much to back nature-based solutions. They can build on the Glasgow nature agenda by putting nature-based solutions in nationally determined contributions ahead of the next UN climate meeting, in Egypt in November. They can back the ambitious agreement on the Global Biodiversity Framework at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal in December. They can support integrating the agendas of the Rio Conventions on climate, biodiversity and desertification. They can get behind the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which shows nature-based solutions can simultaneously tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and poverty.
The investment challenge
Crucially, the G20 must step up on financing. According to the State of Finance for Nature in the G20 report, G20 members invested $120 billion in nature-based solutions in 2020. To meet our climate, biodiversity and land-neutrality goals by 2050, G20 countries need to add an additional $160 billion to nature-based solutions each year by 2050. And they simply must get behind adaptation financing. The Paris Agreement calls for mitigation and adaptation to be balanced, for good reason. We are looking at one disaster per day by 2030. Yet adaptation finance accounted for less than 10% of climate finance over the past decade.
There are many ways to bring this financing online.
Public finance can leverage private finance; we need an environment that enables investments, including legislation to shift harmful subsidies to nature-positive subsidies. However, when engaging the private sector, we must guard against greenwashing. Many corporations have made net zero and nature-positive commitments, but we need greater transparency and accountability to hold the private sector to account.
Financial institutions can stop financing harmful activities by using the UNEP Finance Initiatives recommended exclusions, by supporting efforts of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, and by applying natural capital accounting to assess the real costs of doing business.
Natural capital accounting is crucial for everyone, as gross domestic product alone encourages growth at all costs. The Dasgupta Review showed that natural capital has declined by 40% since the early 1990s. More countries should adopt the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting, which complements GDP by including statistics on ecosystems and the services they supply.
Carbon pricing, meanwhile, can reorient capital flows towards sustainable investments, innovation and low carbon technologies. We can create additional revenue streams for forest ecosystem services, through initiatives such as the Green Gigaton Challenge. And we can accelerate the development of rules, safeguards and guidance to ensure that nature-based offsets complement decarbonisation efforts.
Finally, we can increase efforts to standardise environmental and social impact indicators and improve traceability. UNEP is working with banks and investors on key performance indicators to measure the climate, biodiversity and livelihood impacts from nature-positive financing.
We have treated nature badly, and the consequences of our behaviour are catching up with us. But nature is resilient. If the G20 and others back nature-based solutions as one of the main ways to address the triple planetary crisis, humanity and nature can become allies once more. And people and planet can thrive for centuries to come.