Key to preventing catastrophic nature loss is a clear global goal, and measuring progress towards it
by Gavin Edwards, Director, Global Nature Positive Initiative, WWF International
2022 is the year of the tiger in the Chinese zodiac, representing strength and courage. This is fitting, because in mid-2022 governments will gather in Kunming, China to agree a nature positive action plan for the decade. In formulating this plan, governments can learn from their successes and failures on climate change.
‘Coals, cars, cash and trees’ was the much-repeated slogan of the UK Government, host of 2021’s COP26 climate talks, to pithily sum up areas where it was committed to delivering progress. In the end though, when it came down to the crucial negotiations, COP26 left many disappointed, failing to deliver the huge changes needed to avert the climate crisis.
This is why one of the important outcomes of the Glasgow talks was in fact the formal request for all governments to come back next year with stronger commitments and actions to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. This supercharges the promise countries made in the Paris Agreement to review and constantly push to ratchet up their climate pledges to meet its goals, nudging governments ever closer towards achieving the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
Looking ahead into 2022, governments will again come together, this time to agree a Paris-style agreement for nature, through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. With a million species facing extinction, and access to healthy food and clean water more under threat than ever from the loss of nature, an ambitious plan is vital. It is also essential to reaching that Paris 1.5°C goal, because about one third of the actions needed to reduce emissions come through nature-based solutions rather than through phasing out fossil fuels. While the climate negotiations are not yet fulfilling their mission, at least they are driving up ambition and action. The situation with nature is far, far worse. In fact, in the past decade, none of the targets set through the CBD’s 2010 Aichi Targets have been met. This raises the question: what can the CBD learn from the Paris Agreement and its implementation?
The hot topics under negotiation right now for nature include protecting and conserving at least 30% of the world’s land, ocean and freshwater by 2030; clear targets for halving the impact of the agricultural, forestry, fisheries, mining and infrastructure sectors; and ensuring that finance is flowing to developing countries as well as within wealthy countries. All are under discussion as key ingredients in this agreement, to be formulated as a Global Biodiversity Framework.
Learning from the Paris Agreement, perhaps there is something even more important than the actual actions needed to protect nature and ensure sustainable use. Afterall, protecting places, securing sustainable and legal fisheries, and reforming agricultural practices are not new ideas. What has been lacking is the political and societal will to fully embrace and implement them. A clear measurable goal, and a frequent doubling down on action, could well be the missing ingredients.
A close read of the Paris Agreement does not yield any specific mentions of fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas, even though moving to a world without them is a clear imperative. What it does elegantly lay out is a clear goal — in the form of temperature — and a process to get there. This involves putting the onus on governments to make a series of commitments for what they think is their fair share of the global action needed. This allows a global stocktake to see if the individual commitments reach the agreed global goal, and then an expectation of a ‘ratchet’ — essentially a call for more action by governments until the goal set is estimated to be reached.
This Pledge → Review → Ratchet approach coupled with a clearly defined outcome is central to the momentum being built on climate change. It helps cut through the real-world complexities of all the actions needed, in a way that an informed public can understand. Governments must come together, commitments in hand, and allow other governments and the wider public to see and judge if they are indeed doing their fair share. This in turn helps create a measure of accountability.
Can this system be replicated for nature? Firstly, a Pledge → Review → Ratchet approach can and must be a feature of a Global Biodiversity Framework to be agreed in Kunming in 2022. Then governments can update their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans where they fall short, or simply commit to additional actions they will take. Aggregating these actions globally is key to ensuring that they add up, which leaves an important question to answer: what should they add up to?
The question of measuring actions against a given outcome becomes more challenging with nature. For climate, the world has essentially agreed on a surrogate measurement — CO2 equivalent — then translated this into a likely late-century temperature target for the planet, based on a set of assumptions regarding the planet’s ability to absorb carbon. Estimates (which are very rough estimates, given the complexity of the biosphere and of nature) are then made on the likely impacts on people, on the economy, and on nature. The world has more or less accepted that these estimates, while not an exact science, are good enough, with the collective action of all measured and stated as temperature.
Individual actors such as companies are beginning to strive to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, in part because they want to contribute to the larger global goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C without exactly knowing if others will do the same or whether it will add up. The important point is that action is being taken, and that there is a general acknowledgement that it is not yet enough action.
In the absence of measuring all nature and the benefits it provides to people, which is not practical nor possible, then what are the surrogate measures for nature that have a degree of measurability, and will inspire action by all at the scale needed?
Two years ago, a number of organizations, including WWF, developed a Global Goal for Nature. This goal — to be Nature Positive by 2030 — aims to drive action across governments, business and society to ensure that there is more nature in the world by the end of this decade than there was at the start. This is a clear and simple proposition that is hard to disagree with, and if achieved, will set nature on a path to be fully recovered such that humans are living in harmony with nature by mid-century. Science tells us that reversing biodiversity loss to be nature positive by 2030 is vital to protecting human health and the global economy as well as meeting targets set in the Paris Agreement. This goal is therefore a necessity, and the challenge is how to make it possible.
In defining Nature Positive, some pointers to measurability have been developed. These include improvements in the health, abundance, diversity, integrity and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems. With one eye on readily-available data to ensure that a theoretical measurement can be practically measured, then three metrics emerge.
Firstly, whether species are surviving or facing extinction is already tracked through the IUCN Red List. Sometimes referred to as a barometer of life, this list tracks more than 140,000 species. Secondly, and as important as species extinction, is whether the populations of species are in recovery and moving toward being healthy. For this, the WWF/Zoological Society of London Living Planet Index (LPI) measures population trends of 2,000 vertebrate species from terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats. Thirdly, for ecosystems, there are numerous efforts to track area-based conservation commitments and the quality of ecosystem habitats using satellite imagery. This can include how much is being conserved and protected, and whether the most important places are being protected. While much spatial information is available, a consensus is needed around a common set of available data to use for this purpose.
These three sources of data can in aggregate give a measurable sense of whether nature is in recovery. They are far from perfect, in the same way that a measure of a specific temperature pathway for climate is not a perfect measure of whether adequate action is being taken to avoid specific climate impacts, such as avoiding one in a hundred year extreme storms or heat waves. But they are good enough to give us a sense that we are heading in the right direction, and more than good enough to spur more action.
These three metrics have been developed to be applied system-wide to the whole world. They could also be used to help governments and the private sector. For example, an ambitious plan from a government to commit to and implement its fair share of action could lead to them being recognised as a nature-positive government.
The private sector — both individual companies and also whole-sector plans in a specific country or region — can also contribute to this 2030 nature positive global goal. This can be through specific action plans of companies that utilize Science-Based Targets for Nature or using the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Building Blocks for Nature Positive. The financial system can then begin to reward or favour nature-positive countries or companies contributing to a nature-positive world, and conversely note as risky those that do not. The idea of a nature-positive economy is being developed by numerous financial system actors, with specific tools being developed such as the work of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures.
What is clear from the Paris agreement is that ‘good-enough’ measurability coupled with regular stocktaking of action in an open way will spur more action. This stepwise approach could well be key to finally bending the climate curve such that the world one day no longer faces a climate catastrophe. So too can it be the key to avoiding catastrophic nature loss and all its grave consequences for humanity, especially the world’s poorest. A net zero emissions and a nature positive world will also be a more equitable world for all.