Low-Hanging Fruit In the Race to Slow Climate Change
June 3, 2014 | 2897 views
In advance of the 2014 UN Climate Summit to be held in September, we asked some of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to share with us their perspectives, insights and solutions on how best to tackle, in a catalytic way, the many challenges associated with climate change. Participating organizations in this discussion include Forest Trends, Friends of the Earth Middle East, Independent Diplomat, Global Witness, Healthcare Without Harm, Root Capital and Skoll Global Threats Fund. Stay tuned for updates!
By now, we’ve all seen the images: Miami under water, Singapore submerged, and low-lying countries like Bangladesh decimated after Antarctica’s massive Western Ice Sheet slides into the ocean – an event NASA says is all but inevitable now that the sheet’s long-frozen foundation has turned to slush.
As disquieting as these images are, however, it’s the parched prairies and flaming forests highlighted in the US Climate Assessment that we should be worried about right now. That’s because these events have already begun to have dramatic effects, including a threat to the global food supply, which is why 16 retired US admirals and generals warned the world is about to become a much more dangerous place than it’s been in a long, long time. If we don’t act now, those submerged cities could be empty by the time the oceans rise.
And, fortunately, we can act now by harnessing a suite of tools that have proven effective at helping us address and respond to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, says we need to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies if we’re to keep temperatures from rising more than 2°C, but we actually have a “technology” that’s been proven to capture and store carbon on a meaningful scale: our natural or “green” infrastructure, including forests. This is the low-hanging fruit of this epic struggle: the restoration of our natural infrastructure, the conservation of forests, and the growing of new ones.
But we have to act now, because rising temperatures have made these natural defenses more vulnerable to fires, pests, and pathogens than ever before. This means we also need to be more active in managing our forests and more creative in financing that management. It’s a challenge that cities like Denver are meeting by funneling part of their water fees to forest management to protect their freshwater sources.
Investing in natural infrastructure is a simple solution that works by harnessing carbon finance, watershed protection, and other mechanisms that recognize the value of natural, living ecosystems. Our recent “State of Forest Carbon Markets” report shows that such mechanisms are being used to protect a staggering 26 million hectares of endangered forest in developing countries. That’s larger than the entire forested area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the total land area of Ecuador.
Latin America has become a hotbed of innovation in the field of conservation finance, as we can see by zeroing in on just one Brazilian state, Acre. Forest Trends worked with state leaders to develop an entire regulatory regime including a financing mechanism that is funneling millions of dollars to help indigenous people revive their traditional stewardship and governance of forests. If we zoom in even closer, we can focus on one indigenous people, the Surui, who we worked with to save their 250,00-hectare forest using carbon finance.
Each of these efforts are designed to test new financing mechanisms that can be scaled up if they work and refined or abandoned if they don’t. It’s an approach the government of Peru embraced with gusto two years ago, when the Ministry of Environment asked us to help it develop scalable methods of financing the preservation of their precious glacial water reserves up and down the Andes – reserves that keep the city of Lima alive. The second-largest desert city after Cairo, Lima is home to 9 million people, but it will be a fraction of that size in 30 years if it doesn’t figure out a way to protect its water supplies.
Support for natural infrastructure not only slows climate change and supports regular flows of water, but also protects biodiversity and endangered species while engaging local communities in supporting the kind of active land management that will be necessary as we adapt to the changes that are still inevitable.
At the core of all of this is the creation of financial mechanisms that recognize the inherent value of our natural ecosystems. Such recognition is one of the most powerful ways of sustaining them, because once we start thinking about ecosystems as assets, then environmental sustainability can become part of the economic fabric of society.
It’s the failure to think along these lines that drives climate change and, indeed, that drives all the desperate headlines we see of glaciers melting, hurricanes pelting the coast, monster fires, and droughts sending millions of people abandoning their homes in search of food. All of these are merely symptoms of a single disease caused by our failure to connect economy and ecology.
To cure the disease, we must make the priceless valuable. We must develop an economic model that supports growth in a way that is also in harmony with nature by making conservation a business activity.
Fortunately, this is already happening, but the greatest impetus isn’t coming from central governments or even international bodies. It’s coming from cities like Philadelphia, which is harnessing water fees to develop “green” sidewalks and roofs, and from sub-national jurisdictions like Brazil’s Acre state or Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan.
And it’s also coming from the boardrooms of corporations like Nestle and Unilever, which have vowed to purge deforestation from their commodity supply chains. It’s coming because commodity-dependent companies expect to take climate-related hits in the very near future, and because consumers are becoming aware of the impact their purchases have on the climate.
To harness this growing understanding, Forest Trends recently hosted two “Katoomba Meetings” in Latin America. These events – one in Brazil and one in Peru – brought together these unusual partners: businesses, local communities, financial institutions, indigenous leaders, policymakers, and non-governmental organizations like ourselves – all in one tent.
In that tent, we were able to focus on the building of bridges and the forging of a new language for a new economic reality. Some bridges were utilitarian, like the creation of forest-backed bonds that could help countries like Brazil save their forests, while others were more inspirational. But they all had two things in common: a legacy of success, and a desire to scale that success up by bridging the gap between economy and ecology.