OPINION: Nature will help drive a better, faster COVID-19 recovery

Businesses, investors, cities and regions need to commit to working with, rather than against, nature By Nigel Topping, UN High Level Climate Action Champion for the UK’s COP26 climate summit | June 11, 2021

In recent decades, deforestation, biodiversity loss and pollution have destroyed the natural capital on which we rely, helping to accelerate 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 and making sure that within the decade, 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 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 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.

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 and 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 and halt the spread of the Sahara Desert by restoring deforested and degraded land across 8,000 kilometres.

Africa’s Great Green Wall project aims to sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon by 2030. Image: Great Green Wall.

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 – including the six countries share the Congo Basin, which spans 314 million hectares of old, dense, ecologically valuable primary rainforest.

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, and by starting now these benefits can help eradicate poverty and hunger and create 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.

Race to Zero, launched in 2020, commits organisations to follow robust criteria for reaching zero emissions, including near-term targets and regular progress reports with commitments to end deforestation, shift to regenerative agriculture and restore degraded lands.

The Race to Resilience, launched this year, is mobilizing businesses, investors and local governments to support locally-led climate adaptation work with initiatives on issues from alleviating water stress, to restoring mangroves and land, and helping financial institutions invest in smallholder farms.

Some business leaders are already striking out and the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition is bringing major companies like Danone, Nestlé, Mars, Google, Unilever, Walmart and Microsoft together to scale up regenerative agriculture.

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. We have consistently undervalued nature, 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.

This article was first published by Thompson Reuters Foundation

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