WHY WE CAN STILL SAVE THE PLANET, TIM CHRISTOPHERSEN, UNITED NATIONS DECADE ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION 2021-2030
FEBRUARY 25, 2020
Interesting and hopeful interview with Tim Christophersen, Head of Nature for Climate for UN Environment Programme, and managing the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030
I am forester by training, and I have worked in over 20 countries on the linkage between biodiversity, climate change, and forestry. Currently I lead the ‘Nature for Climate’ Branch at UN Environment Programme (UNEP). My team’s focus this year (which we call the ‘Super Year for Nature’ because of all the global meetings and growing political momentum on the topic), is to work with Governments and the private sector to redirect large public and private investments into the restoration and conservation of nature.
Current public subsides and private investment patterns often cause or accelerate the degradation of nature, such as tropical deforestation that is fueled by agricultural subsidies. Basically, we are drawing down Earth’s natural capital faster than nature can replenish it. Interestingly, a growing number of large businesses, at CEO level, have recognized this and are starting to reverse course and invest in nature, ahead of many political leaders who are not yet taking sufficient action.
Why Tim Christophersen believes there are grounds for optimism
Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?
Being an ecosystems expert is actually quite useful for my work, which nowadays is mostly about influencing political systems. They work in remarkably similar ways. Both ecosystems and political systems are complex and interconnected, and small actions can have big ripple effects, if they are strategically placed and well timed. Both systems do not work in linear ways, but can have sudden and dramatic ‘tipping points’ at which the system shifts into a new stable state, following a disturbance. In political systems, such tipping points can be both positive and negative.
How was the last 12 months?
The last 12 months, and even more so the coming 12 months, are an exciting time in human history, because we are witnessing the buildup to several positive political tipping points for nature and for climate action, both at national and global level. It is a race against time, and whether or not we win it will have profound implications for future generations.
The signs of a climate action tipping point are for example the accelerating divestment from fossil fuels, and the increasing interest of both Governments and the private sector to invest in rebuilding the capacity and resilience of natural systems to sustain life and the economy. 2020 can be a tipping point where we are seeing for example the start of a long-term, multi-billion USD global nature conservation and restoration economy, triggered by investments into nature-based climate solutions.
First movers from the private sector are already scoping investment opportunities, both for carbon offsets in nature (which has a number of challenges, which I will come to), and for ecosystem restoration as a new asset class, such as investing in the restoration of degraded agricultural land.
We are just establishing a new Facility that can give financial support to start-up private investment Funds in Forest and Landscape Restoration. The challenge we see in the coming 12 months is to channel all this energy around nature-based solutions into useful directions, and to ensure we avoid greenwashing. We have several sets of guidelines emerge on investments in nature-based solutions, which basically all point to the same three main issues:
- Nature-based climate solutions and offsets are not an excuse for business as usual. Any industry that considers investments in nature as an offset first needs to explore all other options for emission reductions, based on a credible decarbonization strategy. Currently, we do not see this kind of strategy fpr example from the oil and gas industry, and therefore their enthusiasm for investments in nature-based solutions should be received with skepticism.
- We must put people first, and ensure we take a human-rights-based approach for any investments in nature conservation or restoration. There are decades of lessons and experience on this which we can draw on, such as the principle of free, prior and informed consent that is part of the approach of forest emission reductions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
- We must work with nature, and not against her. Lessons from past efforts teach us that we must respect biodiversity and harness nature’s power for self-healing, rather than plant the wrong tree at the wrong time, or in the wrong place. The cheapest and often most effective tool for restoration is to conserve what is already there, and give nature time and space to recover.
1 min pitch for what you are doing now?
My work at UNEP includes the preparation of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, and it is fascinating to see the fast growing interest from private investors, and from Governments and other stakeholders, to shift resources away from destructive practices and towards a restoration economy.
I am convinced that we will see a global restoration economy emerge over the next few years, simply because it is necessary, but also because it is a new frontier in business and investing, and offers an alternative to some large investments that might become stranded assets, such as coal or other fossil fuels.
I follow a few concrete projects, of large-scale restoration opportunities, in developing countries and we see a spike in interest in investment, such as Spekboom restoration in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, or the restoration by local communities across the High Andes cloud forests. There are many encouraging examples.
Within the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we will promote and connect all of these initiatives, and new ones that will emerge (on https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/).
Tell us more about nature-based climate solutions, what are some good examples around the world? & What positive benefits are they yielding?
We have designed the UN Decade using a ‘New Power’ approach, meaning that we want to build on the power of digital tools such as social media to not only drive broad participation, and a global movement for nature, but we will also offer that stakeholders can actively shape the Decade.
We have for example just launched a global consultation that is open to everybody to let us know how we should adapt our strategic approach. At the heart of the UN Decade will be a ‘digital hub’ to connect all the various stakeholders which can take action, and inform and reinforce each other.
There are several networks already that we can build on, such as Patagonia’s Action Works, and many others. The technological challenges for achieving restoration at scale include that much of the restoration will take place on small-holder farmland in developing countries, where it is difficult to reach the farmers with information, and access to finance and other tools.
Technologies such as blockchain, and remote sensing options that can detect changes in vegetation or in soil organic carbon and trigger payments for restoration efforts, could play an important role. We would also hope that others will support the UN Decade through XPrize challenges for several technological obstacles we face, and which could be solved with the right mix of incentives, ingenuity, and critical mass of expertise.
How can people find out more about you personally & your work?
Updates on the UN Decade will be published at https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/ , and I regularly post on these topics, Twitter @TimChristo
More about Irish Tech News and Business Showcase here