At Maurice Strong’s 80th birthday, celebrated by leaders from business and the environment at a function hosted by IUCN recently in Gland, many whom he had inspired spoke of what they had learnt from him. It is difficult, when considering such a lifetime of achievement and such an inspiring personality, to single out one which is iconic. However, if I were to select one, it would be that Maurice Strong personifies the spirit of active responsibility : “owning the problem” is his hallmark. He stops at no boundaries and goes to extraordinary lengths to solve what he believes is a vital problem for humanity. His adoption of climate change as “his problem” is an example of that penchant, and it should inspire us now. 

The world is in dire need of rethinking how irresponsibly it uses and how badly it values natural capital. These two failings have led to accelerating losses of ecosystems and biodiversity to a point where entire ecosystems are poised at thresholds of irreversible damage. Tropical coral reefs and the arctic biome are two such threatened ecosystems of vital significance.

Coral bleaching, which accelerated since CO2 concentrations crossed 320 ppm, coupled with ocean acidification which inhibits natural regeneration, now challenges the survival of this important source of food and livelihoods to 500 million people in vulnerable tropical coastal and island communities. Arctic ice melt exposes the global economic and political order to the risks of a new “race to the bottom” as a result of this newly accessible area of the global commons.

“Business as Usual” implies sizeable economic losses, MDG unachievability, and human welfare consequences which appear too costly[1] to contemplate.

Conversely, by leveraging and pressing into service the world's Natural Capital in ways we have not done before, we can not only arrest and reverse current trends, but also create avenues for rewarding human endeavour, reducing ecological scarcities, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Tropical forest carbon is an area of singularly high opportunity for effective and large-scale mitigation. Tropical forests are the largest carbon sink on land : they store 25% of terrestrial carbon, absorb around 5 Gt of CO2 per year [2] (15% of estimated emissions) and yet, due to rampant deforestation, they are also responsible for 20% of CO2 emissions [3].

Prioritizing a “REDD-Plus” solution for Copenhagen carries the prospect of significant mitigation, and major co-benefits such as freshwater security, soil stabilization, higher nutrient flows, flood and drought control, livelihood benefits, and immense opportunities for the “bottom of the pyramid” inclusion as well as developing and employing expertise across diverse business sectors.

Biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems can also contribute significantly and cost-effectively to efforts to adapt to unavoidable Climate Change. By investing in improving ecosystem services, agricultural productivity can be significantly enhanced, especially in developing countries[4], freshwater supplies can be secured, and the impacts of natural hazards considerably reduced. Employment and skills development for poor local communities are additional benefits. Recent cost-benefit analysis of typical ecological restoration[5] projects as adaptation strategies indicates high cost-effectiveness, inviting Adaptation funding from Copenhagen and subsequent rounds.

Let us follow Maurice Strong and “own the problem” : doing whatever we can to ensure that the world realizes that natural capital is our best resource for both mitigation and adaptation to dangerous climate change. Why spend billions and yers on R&D for untested new “Carbon Capture and Storage” (CCS) technologies, when we already have a billion-year-old technology perfected by Nature ( called “forests”) which does exactly the same, with no R&D, no harmful side-effecs, and exceptionally low investment ?

Solving this problem of human understanding and will to action means taking every avenue of opportunity to address it : from asking policy-makers and administrators in every country, to engaging the UNFCCC process, to involving business leaders and engaging citizens.

There is much communicating to be done, and many avenues available at which we must do so before, during, and after Copenhagen. We have the UN General Assembly in New York, the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, and UNFCCC meeting in Thailand. Then we have the climate change meeting in Copenhagen. Then the World Economic Forum in Davos, in January. The world of business, well known to Maurice Strong, largely does not realize that success in solving for Climate Change will depend significantly on leveraging our natural capital. When this realization dawns at Davos, leaders from business & government can move to the next stage, which is to seek, find, and profit from "joined-up" solutions.

The outcome of the Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen, December 2009, can be a turning point for a “joined-up” solution to solve for both Climate Change and Biodiversity loss, by accelerated implementation of “REDD-Plus” and by investing in ecosystem restoration for adaptation to some of the most dangerous effects of climate . Let us draw inspiration from Maurice Strong and “own the problem” in order to solve it.

[1] TEEB Interim Report, May 2008

[2] Lewis & White, 2009, Nature, 457:1003-U3

[3] IPCC 4th Assessment, 2007

[4] J.N.Pretty et al ,"Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries", ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, VOL. 40, NO. 4, 2006

[5] TEEB Climate Issues Update, Sep 2009