Chairman's input to World Conservation magazine: A bridge to the future

22 October 2009 | News story

Investing in nature generates very high returns for the economy, society and the environment. It is also a low cost and effective way to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions while the world weans itself off fossil fuels, says IUCN President Ashok Khosla, in an article from the latest issue of IUCN’s World Conservation magazine: “Last call: Climate and nature”.

Despite growing scientific evidence that our present patterns of consumption and production are leading to massive disruption of the planet’s life support systems, particularly our climate and our living resources, most nations continue to drive into the future with only the rearview mirror to guide them. International treaties have been negotiated to slow down this headlong race to self-destruction, but the foot on the accelerator pedal continues to press harder than the one on the brake; the biggest polluters are still the biggest defaulters.

Given the lag times between cause (emission of greenhouse gases) and effect (changes in atmospheric temperatures), the global climate is in for modification no matter how soon the economies of the world reduce their use of fossil fuels and cutting of forests—even down to zero. The legacy of some 150 years of profligate energy and material use will see to that. Much of this change, which will in turn lead to changes in rainfall, sea levels, frequency of natural disasters and other unpleasant phenomena is widely considered to be unfavourable, if not outright harmful to the economy, to society and possibly to life on earth.

While it is imperative that our scientists, environmentalists and diplomats work day and night to rectify this state of affairs and bring about global agreements and national policies that will reduce the future causes of global change, it is also necessary to evolve ways that go beyond the simplistic knee-jerk solutions currently being sought by those who have an interest in continuing the status quo.

There are several ways in which we can avoid the worst forecasts becoming reality. Most of them involve an alliance with nature. To achieve the promised post-carbon economy innovation of technologies is certainly important but the best immediate course is to rebuild the health of the environment. We need a ‘bridge’ that will deliver some quick results—one that allows ecosystems to absorb more CO2, increases their resilience and improves the capacity of vulnerable populations to cope with climate change impacts. This bridge means investing in nature. It can lead to quick yet long-lasting results, it does not depend on technological wizardry and it can provide the best long term return both in terms of carbon absorption and in securing the livelihoods of millions of people. And we have thousands of years’ experience in managing nature. But we need to act now. The longer we wait, the more costly it will be and the sooner the range of options will shrink.

Take forests, for example. Better management of the world’s forests can have an immediate and significant impact on carbon sequestration. Perhaps the clearest example of what can and should be done lies with proposals like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). Properly managed, degraded forests could capture up to 20% of our current CO2 emissions. Why would anyone wish to give up a highly successful and benign technology, proven over billions of years in favour of an untested, invasive and expensive technology that involves large scale geo-engineering?

But let’s not forget the rest of biodiversity and its potential to absorb unwanted CO2. We know that restored mangroves can capture some CO2 while helping to rejuvenate fisheries. They also allow coastal ecosystems to recover more quickly from disasters such as tsunamis and storms. Grasslands and rangelands hold great potential. Mixed farming and agro-forestry can help maintain the biodiversity needed to increase the resilience of ecosystems while also storing excess carbon.

Investing in nature and protecting biodiversity is equivalent to buying an insurance policy: the microbes, animals and plants which provide us with clean water, fuel, medicine and food will need some help if they are to survive the rapid pace of change our economic systems have engendered. Biodiversity can do for the planet what a healthy immune system can do for a person: it can help us be more productive and adaptable to change but, if not properly nourished, can make us more vulnerable.

We are currently seeing what could well be the biggest wave of public investment in history in trying to ‘manage’ the economic crisis. Some of this investment—but not enough—makes sense from an environmental perspective such as improvements in public transport and energy saving measures. Yet very little attention is given to the most important asset of all. Investing in nature is not a tree-hugger’s pipe dream; it is an imperative. It can provide the quick gains we need to build that bridge to the future and make them permanent.

We cannot allow the debates about CO2 targets, historic responsibility, technology or financing to hide the reality that we are quickly running out of time. Massive investments in nature—in the way we protect, manage and govern it—can’t wait if we are to evolve to a decarbonized economy. It does not need rocket science, it is not a substitute for our obligation to reduce emissions, it is about turning existing knowledge into urgent action. And that is what is needed.

Ashok Khosla is founder and chairman of the Development Alternatives Group based in India, one of the first civil society organizations to address the issues of sustainable development.

Download the full issue of IUCN World Conservation magazine: Last call: Climate and nature