Elizabeth Mrema: “Protecting and restoring nature is good business – it generates value, builds resilience, and supports net zero plans”

By Charlotte Owen-Burge, Editorial Lead, Climate Champions | May 22, 2023
  • Nature loss, climate change, and pollution are part of the same planetary crisis, reinforcing each other’s impacts.
  • The recognition that half of the world’s economic value depends on nature has increased awareness within the business community.
  • The adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework emphasizes the need for a comprehensive approach involving all sectors of society.
  • Inaction on biodiversity loss and climate change leads to real-life consequences such as extreme weather events and economic impacts like rising food prices and GDP decline.
  • Engaging the private sector is crucial, as protecting and restoring nature can generate economic value and support sustainability goals.

In a world challenged by biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and former Executive Secretary of the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity, delivers a compelling message.

Highlighting the profound interconnections among these crises, Mrema reveals the dire consequences of inaction and emphasizes the strength of collective action. On this International Day for Biological Diversity, Mrema urges governments, businesses, and individuals to unite in safeguarding our planet’s invaluable ecosystems. Her vision inspires a path of preservation, restoration, and sustainable practices, paving the way for a future where nature thrives, and humanity harmoniously coexists with our environment.

What are the main reasons for the lack of progress in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and how can we overcome these barriers to drive more effective action?

Until recently, within governments, biodiversity was considered an issue related to protected areas and protected species, best left to environmental ministries to consider.

Following the 2019 IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services – which stated that the loss of biodiversity had reached an unprecedented rate in the history of humankind, where an estimated 1 million species are at risk of extinction – and various subsequent publications, there has been growing recognition of the importance of biodiversity and nature, including to food production, water availability, industrial resilience and infrastructure stability.

This also came with a recognition that nature loss, climate change and pollution are aspects of the same planetary crisis. Droughts and water shortages, the drastic reduction in fish stocks, and the loss of forests, peatland, mangrove, and coral habitats worldwide are all driving climate change and made more likely by it. Waste and pollution are poisoning terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

Then in 2020, the World Economic Forum found that about half of the world’s annual economic value generation depends on nature and the services it provides. This caused an important awakening within the business community, and we are now seeing global economic policy leaders, such as the finance ministries of the G7 and G20, acknowledge the importance of nature as a shared capital underpinning the fundamentals of our economy.  

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) adopted at COP15 in December last year is a landmark agreement in that it recognizes the importance of a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to addressing the global biodiversity crisis.

We have little time to achieve the 23 targets of the GBF not only on protecting 30% of the world’s biodiversity important areas and restoring 30% of degraded areas by 2030 but all of them – whilst reducing human pressures on nature and establishing a more sustainable use and equitable sharing of the benefits that biodiversity provides us.

I want to be optimistic. Awareness is rising fast, and we now have a global framework to take practical and rapid action.

But there are many challenges to overcome. For one, nature and its linkages with climate must be integrated in the policy priorities of countries. Nature is not only an environmental ministry issue. Budgetary action from ministries of economy and finance can transform the policy landscape to create a tangible shift in financial flows away from activities that destroy nature and towards those that restore and protect nature.

What are the potential consequences of inaction to address biodiversity loss within the next few years, and how can we motivate stakeholders to take urgent and meaningful action on this issue?

We do not even need a seven-year horizon to see the consequences of our inaction – we simply need to look around us in 2023 and in recent years. The droughts, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires witnessed in recent years across the world – from Argentina and the Horn of Africa to the USA, from Europe to China – are the real-life consequences of inaction to address biodiversity loss and climate change.

So, the cost of inaction within the coming seven years is a worsening of those phenomena, with the social and economic consequences that we are already feeling: rising inflation on food commodities that disproportionately impacts the more vulnerable people in society and poorer countries, water usage conflicts, large-scale property loss, to mention a few.

The unsustainable use of plants and animals is not just threatening the survival of one million species around the world; it also impacts the livelihoods of billions of people who rely on wild species for food, fuel and income. The more nature we lose, the less opportunity we have to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Expect a decline of 2.7 trillion USD per year of Gross Domestic Product due to nature loss by 2030, disproportionately impacting low income countries.

Will these gloomy predictions motivate people to act? To some extent. We need to look at the positive side of nature conservation too. Nature is a source of beauty and enjoyment, a shared amenity, and we are part of it. Nature is also a source of economic opportunity. Ecosystems and wild species help regulate meteorological cycles, water resources, soil fertility, and pollination. By investing in nature conservation and restoration, we can build resilient value within our society for the benefit of the people.

We should insist on the value of nature for everyone: economic, cultural, spiritual – it is the very foundation of our society. This must be understood, from political leaders and businesspeople, to everyone within society.

How can we build consensus and create a shared understanding of the importance of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to implement it robustly?

A keyword in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework is “mainstreaming”. Nature must be mainstreamed in policies, regulations, economic decisions, and consumer choices.

We cannot leave future generations to repair the damage done by ourselves and our elders. We must continue to educate ourselves and everyone.

For policy leaders, the business community, investors, and even consumers, we will need to make some frequent arbitration. Is the priority to extract fossil fuels to increase our power generation capacity in the short term or to invest in a green transition? Should we continue clearing 10,000 square kilometres per year of Amazon rainforest to produce more soy, meat and palm oil, or should we invest in more sustainable food systems? Should developed economies continue to subsidize pesticide- intensive agriculture or support farmers to develop more sustainable, productive farmland? If I am lucky to have a pension plan, shall I maximize short-term interests by investing in oil and gas, or should I ask my bank manager to invest my savings in sustainable investment products?

At the consumer level, particularly in developed and emerging countries, do we really need to wrap all our food in plastics? How much meat do we need in a healthy diet? Are we prepared to pay a premium for healthier, more sustainable consumption?

These are not easy choices, particularly with today’s global inflation and debt. Structurally, this calls for major shifts in the global financial system, where public investment prioritizes support for the green transition and the needs of the more vulnerable people.

How can states and non-state actors effectively embed biodiversity considerations into their net-zero plans, ensuring alignment between the two agendas?

Regarding net zero plans, we should recognize that nature is an integral component of climate and vice versa. A net zero plan must consider how an organization interacts with nature. Nature is an asset, and nature loss is a threat to net zero plans in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

At the government level, the plan for the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is clear: they have committed to implementing the GBF, and, in the short term, this means developing, updating and strengthening their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), in support of the vision and targets of the GBF. And they must follow words with action – now.

For donor countries, this means working to mobilize overseas development assistance on nature to reach the 20 billion dollars per year mark by 2025 and 30 billion dollars per year by 2030 (noting that 2020 levels were estimated at between 4 and 10 billion dollars).

For all countries, this means focusing their economic and financial policies and regulations to mobilize public and private finance towards implementing the GBF. This includes reducing harmful subsidies and incentives by 500 billion dollars annually to 2030 and repurposing them towards activities that protect or restore nature.

The same applies to the private sector. Today, biodiversity finance is estimated at less than 150 billion dollars per year, when the GBF calls for 200 billion dollars per year by 2030 (from all sources), and, at the same time, dozens of trillions are invested in activities that contribute to destroying nature. This is where the notion of aligning financial flows comes in.

How can we better engage the private sector to address biodiversity loss and promote conservation?

A lot hinges on education and awareness raising. Protecting and restoring nature is good business – it generates value, builds resilience, and supports net zero plans. Once a tree is cut, you can make furniture or perhaps heat your house for a few days, but then you have nothing left.

The cost of nature loss must be incorporated into the financial accounts of organizations. Now, companies report to their shareholders the value they got from cutting the tree. Still, they do not report on the value lost when the tree was removed – the shade that protects from heatwaves, the soil stability provided by the roots, the water retention, and the recreative amenity of the forest.

This means that nature conservation becomes a matter for financial decision-makers, not only for their sustainability departments.

The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), for example, aims to provide a framework for assessing and publicly reporting on nature-related risks, dependencies and impacts that organizations face. The TNFD integrates with the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures so that an organization now can assess and report upon its climate-and nature-related risks, impacts and dependencies in an integrated manner.

We are also looking at developments by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), which is part of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) foundation, which will soon release its guidance on climate and nature.

In certain countries, this concept of reporting on nature-related risks and impacts is gaining ground. We are seeing tangible advances in the European Union. We should see mandatory disclosures become a growing requirement across jurisdictions. I want to believe that this convergence of voluntary market initiatives such as the TNFD and regulatory shifts will have a tangible influence on corporate policies and financial strategies.

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