How to Protect 30% of the Planet and Achieve Other Lofty Goals

In 2011, Colombia had greater rainfall in one month than it typically has in an entire year. The ensuant flooding from the Magdalena and Cauca rivers caused such horrific loss of life and damage that the government acted immediately to avoid a repeat occurrence. It earmarked a huge sum of money for “infrastructure investment” and invited ideas on how to spend it from a wide array of leaders, including me.

I flew down to meet the Minister of the Environment, prepared for an uphill battle as I sought to convince him of nature-based solutions. The first thing I noticed when looking for his office was that the official title had been changed. It was now the Ministry of Environment and Economic Development. I was impressed. These two imperatives should be intertwined more often in my view.

Almost as soon as I sat down, the Minister put up guardrails against any overly lofty ideas. “Look,” he said, “We’re not in the same position as you NGOs. We have a country whose economy has to grow. Our people need jobs. And we need to keep our people safe from dangers like this recent horrific flood. Of course, we also want to protect our precious natural systems. But I only want to hear about environmental protection that makes economic sense and works for our people.”

It couldn’t have been a better opening for me. “Then instead of building levees up and down the river, you should consider floodplain restoration,” I suggested. “Floodplains will absorb the floodwaters in a low cost, very effective way, while also nourishing the lands, making them more fertile for agriculture. They’ll also enhance biodiversity.”

“Okay,” he responded. “If your proposal really does cost less and provide more benefits, we’re in. But first, you have to prove it. The stakes are high. Show our engineers and scientists exactly what your proposal will cost and exactly what it will do for our people and our country.”

To me, this experience captures three key standards we should keep in mind as we pursue ambitious environmental goals. Environmental initiatives will most likely succeed when they:

  1. Also improve economic, health, or security outcomes
  2. Are backed by evidence, data, and science
  3. Can be supported by a diverse group of everyday people, policymakers, scientists, engineers, business leaders, and environmentalists of all stripes.

So how does this work in practice? Let’s look at a timely example.

Were you excited about the recent news that President Biden pledged to protect 30% of the country’s terrestrial and ocean areas by 2030? I was. What a positive and welcome change from the prior administration.

And, as you probably know, the global news is even better. On January 11th, more than 50 countries pledged to do the same ahead of the UN’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity taking place later this year in China. The idea is to do for biodiversity what the 2015 Paris COP did for climate. This global effort is called the 30x30 campaign.

But conserving 30% of oceans and global lands in just nine years sounds very ambitious. Are we dreaming? Can we really pull this off? Let’s examine what we know.

Allow me to simplify for a moment. We can think of environmental supporters falling into two big camps:

  1. Those who believe protecting nature is a moral imperative. They think it’s just the right thing to do. They want to be good ancestors. They want future generations to enjoy the same wonderful natural world that we do today. They respect other species and want to halt the biodiversity crisis. Call this group advocates of “Nature for Nature’s Sake.” I’m in this camp. I think environmentalists are doing a good job of growing this group.
  2. Those who believe we should protect nature for the sake of people in the here and now. They’re not opposed to future generations and other species, but in a world of limited resources and multiple present-day challenges, they say “first things first.” They’re advocates of “Nature for People’s Sake.” I’m highly supportive of this camp too. This group is also expanding as more people become aware of how much we depend on nature.

Both camps should support the 30x30 campaign. For Group 1, protecting a third of the planet is a huge step forward for nature, period. For Group 2, humankind’s immediate self-interest will benefit enormously from protecting nature at such great scale. This second group should view nature as “natural capital.” It’s the asset base that provides absolutely vital services to humankind. These services include bolstering biodiversity of course. But they also include clean air to breathe; good food to eat, nutritious soil in which to grow it, and pollinators to make agriculture work; healthy water to drink; protection from storms, sea-level rise and floods; and — if we don’t blow it — a stable climate.

Both camps have a lot to worry about right now. Nature — viewed either as biodiversity or as natural capital — is badly degraded. And nature is declining at an accelerating pace. Just this past month, Professor Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge published a report on the economics of biodiversity. It’s a scary read. It not only reiterates how much we depend on nature but also how close nature is to irreparable damage. And things won’t get easier in the years ahead. As the global population grows, as more people exit the ranks of poverty (a very positive development of course), and as we experience more adverse effects from a changing climate, the resulting demands on nature will get only more intense.

Step one in pursuing ambitious environmental goals — get both of these camps on your side.

Protecting nature is a very capital-intensive endeavor. The Nature Conservancy did a good analysis recently with the Paulson Institute and Cornell University to determine the size of the biodiversity financing gap. Don’t gasp — it’s in the range of $600 to $800 billion per year!

(I thought I was a pretty good fundraiser when I ran TNC. But even for me — that’s a lot of money).

It shouldn’t be impossible, however, to raise this amount of capital. That’s because high rates of return can be earned by investing in nature.

The report details how much money can be raised annually for the purpose of protecting nature:

  • Biodiversity offsets — $268 billion
  • Domestic budgets, tax — $155
  • Natural infrastructure — $139
  • Green financial products — $92
  • Nature-based climate solutions — $40
  • Official development assistance (ie, international aid) — $19
  • Sustainable supply chains — $19
  • Philanthropy/conservation NGOs — No estimate in the report but I think funding here should be robust for well-designed programs.

The report also estimates that annual funding needs can be decreased by as much as $268 million by eliminating harmful subsidies the world currently provides certain sectors such as the agriculture, fishing, and forestry sectors.

Again, for you environmental traditionalists who are nervous about investment-oriented approaches to conservation: please note how much capital can be raised on this basis.

Step two in the fight for environmental gains — make a strong, data-based investment case for nature in order to raise the necessary capital.

But won’t it be very difficult to protect a third of the planet?

Yes, it will. I think it’s smart to be eyes wide open about these kinds of challenges. The degree of difficulty here is very high. Not impossible, but high. We shouldn’t be naive about any of this. Business as usual is unlikely to work.

  1. For starters, scientists say that only 7.5% of oceans and 15% of global lands are protected today. Getting to 30% is a long way to go.
  2. This is not our first rodeo. I remember very clearly that environmentalists, government leaders, the Davos crowd et al. were talking about all of these same priorities back when I joined TNC in 2008. Let’s be honest. Notwithstanding good intentions, progress has been good, but not great, since that time.
  3. All of the great organizations and people driving the CBD have done excellent work and have made some good progress, but most of the past goals have not been achieved (see here).
  4. Just consider any one of the fundraising options above. Each is a heavy lift, consensus is difficult to find, and it would be easy for any clever critic to make perfect the enemy of the good.

I don’t intend to be pessimistic here — just realistic. As Einstein cautioned, we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome, right? We need a new and better way of doing business.

Step three — if past game plans keep falling short, try coming up with a new plan.

In 2014, various environmental organizations (including TNC) worked to convince some of the world’s leading commodity and consumer brand companies to sign the New York Declaration on Forests. More than 50 companies committed to eliminating deforestation in four key commodities by 2020: beef, soy, palm oil, and pulp and paper. It was an important goal itself and also a key milestone on the longer path to eliminating deforestation in all supply chains by 2030. Unfortunately, 2020 has come and gone, and we came up short. That’s not entirely surprising. This was, after all, a stretch goal.

But what was surprising — to me at least — is that some of the CEOs were angry with me. They said, “Hey, you talked me into this and now we look bad.” To which I said (and passionately maintain), “We failed because we aimed really high. That’s a good thing, not a bad one. Turns out, it was much harder than we thought to eliminate deforestation from a supply chain. Our game plan didn’t end up working as well as we had hoped. But we wouldn’t have known this unless we tried. The risk in setting a big goal is that you might not always achieve it. If success is certain, you aren’t aiming high enough.”

So we need to go back to our three standards — how do we make plans that make business sense, are based on science and data, and can appeal to multiple constituencies? When appropriate, we should try to answer these questions with a new plan. And if we fail again, we should be proud of ourselves for trying, learn more, and try again.

  • Nature-based climate solution business seems poised for takeoff. Demand for carbon removal could fund significant investments in what could also be protected areas. (But we also know there is also a lot of opposition from well-intended environmentalists). What do we need to do to ensure such programs work well for nature, people, and the climate?
  • Government budgets for investments in conservation are growing for both domestic and international (via aid) opportunities. How do we sustain and increase this?
  • Philanthropists are doing much more. The Wyss Foundation, Jeff Bezos, McKenzie Scott, and others have stepped up in a big way. How do we recruit more donors?
  • Supply chain management continues to improve thanks to some stalwart corporate leaders like Walmart. How do we persuade more companies with huge footprints — take, for example, BHP which just announced staggering levels of earnings and dividends to shareholders — to clean up their activities?
  • Indigenous communities are essential participants in these programs and business. NGOs and governments seem to be figuring out to prioritize and better operate successful joint efforts with them. What are the best ways to improve further here?
  • Government-driven infrastructure programs are expected to ramp up all around the world. How do we best campaign for larger commitments to green infrastructure?

All of these initiatives — if they are to scale — require parties who often are at odds to work together in a new and better way. To make any traction, I’d suggest that 1) we prioritize progress over perfection and 2) do our best not to vilify actors who are not exactly on our same page. To have a chance of achieving 30x30, we need “unusual bedfellows” to work together.

(By the way, this is another area where we should not be naive. We know there are bad actors in the world — say, companies whose environmental behaviors are very bad and who show no inclination to improve. Campaigning against such players not only makes sense — it often leads to constructive change).

Step four — build big and inclusive teams.

If so, we should heed the lessons for success from the Colombian Minister. The same holds true for any other ambitious environmental goals like getting to net-zero, ending deforestation, addressing environmental justice, etc. We need to keep trying new things. We should look for strategies that also make business sense. We should insist on evidence and data to determine efficacy before making big bets or dismissing new strategies. We should consider carefully new ways to pay for the protection of nature including designing conservation initiatives as investment opportunities. And we should do everything we can to keep growing our team.

Former CEO of The Nature Conservancy CEO. “Nature’s Fortune” author. Family man, yogi, ice climber, vegan.

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