The Nature Conservancy CEO, Jennifer Morris: We are in the age of adaptation

Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, addresses the urgent need for more innovative climate adaptation strategies. Morris emphasizes transforming stakeholder engagement and enhancing financial support mechanisms, advocating for governance by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. She calls for radical collaboration across governments, businesses, and civil society to address the climate crisis and close the adaptation finance gap swiftly and fairly. By Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy | July 1, 2024

The truth is, we are in the age of adaptation – but as anyone will tell you, this is a slippery slope when we talk about financing nature because we cannot give up on mitigation, it’s a yes/and situation. Despite years of investing in pilots and projects to protect communities, livelihoods and those hit hardest by the climate emergency, there is still so much to do, and the collective conservation community is still in mostly uncharted waters. Up until this point, climate adaptation finance has been largely theoretical and nowhere near the scale needed.

One of the fastest growing trends is around understanding the business and asset risks involved to investors. In this space you are seeing a growing body of work from the actuarial and insurance space that is beginning to validate what conservation organizations have been saying all along – that beyond the health and recreation benefits, nature is a quantifiable asset.

The second trend is appreciating the fundamental importance of the local context in defining adaptation and tackling the underlying drivers of vulnerability for communities like fragile ecosystems. To be transformational, we have to break past incremental change and business as usual. We must create fundamentally different ways of engaging national and local stakeholders. This includes transferring authority and resources to the right levels to enable locally led adaptation with meaningful citizen engagement in design, delivery and reporting.

I know that we can find a path to ensure the long-term, durable conditions needed to affect long-lasting conservation outcomes.

Despite good intentions and billions of dollars in commitments, adaptation currently receives less than half of the international climate finance, with half of that or more in the form of loans that must be paid back. This is not only insufficient, but morally unacceptable. Where countries and communities have received funding, it is highly intermediated, top-down, and short term.

Jennifer Morris, CEO if The Nature Conservancy. Image: TNC.

For example, it is not uncommon to secure a two-year funding commitment for a project that needs seven to ten years of partnership to see real change. And while recipients need to prepare plans that are investment ready, they are hampered by the never-ending cycles of proposals and approvals. Top-down adaptation solutions lead to incrementalism. Instead, we should look at landscape and system scales to enable the transformation needed. As an optimist, I know that we can find a path to ensure the long-term, durable conditions needed to affect long-lasting conservation and adaptation outcomes.

The most effective strategies will build a new financial architecture for the future. In other words, we can create the pipes to get funding directly into the hands of governments and communities to support local investments in resilient landscapes.

To do this, we can use public and private funding investment to unlock finance at scale and fund adaptation projects. A great example of this is Race to Resilience partner the Global Mangrove Alliance, a joint effort of 27 organizations to bring together public and private sector funds to strengthen mangroves and provide benefits to coastal communities and ecosystems. About half of the anticipated $4 billion to fund this is expected to come from the private sector. Another example is the work being undertaken by Enduring Earth, which is already working in six countries, conserving more than 120m Ha using the Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) approach.

The current pipelines of adaptation finance are often inaccessible to local stakeholders and prone to high administrative and intermediary costs. A more equitable vertical integration of financing – including easier and faster access to grants, rethinking Western-based donor requirements for reporting, and ensuring funds are directly allocated to on-the-ground projects – will open up adaptation investments to communities that need them.

In the U.S., there is a need to open up more traditional forms of infrastructure investments to fund nature-based solutions. We have seen this shift begin in risk reduction funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Transportation with investments in solutions like green space and wetland restoration, but more needs to be done to enhance and better facilitate investments for nature-based solutions.

While the climate and biodiversity crises are well known, there is also a third crisis – the debt crisis

Financial mechanisms, such as TNC’s Nature Bonds, present a tremendous opportunity for us to work with national governments and introduce climate adaptation components into their environmental initiatives. We collaborate with governments to design people-centred climate adaptation initiatives that help them achieve their conservation goals, too, in line with TNC’s goal to help 100 million people at severe risk of climate-related emergencies by 2030.

While the climate and biodiversity crises are well known, there is also a third crisis – the debt crisis. Developing countries are in a vicious financial cycle in which they must fund interventions to mitigate, while also paying to address the loss and damage. 60% of low-income countries are now officially in debt distress or at high risk of it, a number that has doubled since 2015, and low-income countries struggle to access affordable finance in the face of rising debt-servicing costs.

TNC has carved out a role in helping countries address the growing debt, nature, and climate crises together. One of the mechanisms to do so is Nature Bonds: a strategy that helps governments convert sovereign debt into funds to meet their ambitious national and global climate and biodiversity commitments while providing support for economic development and sustainable livelihoods.

Through these projects, TNC provides long-term technical financial and conservation assistance to effectively finance and implement those commitments for conservation outcomes. In practice, this means countries are able to convert their debt under more favorable terms and allocate the proceeds toward biodiversity protection and climate adaptation with support from TNC and other stakeholders. It is a multi-step process of planning conservation goals, negotiating financial terms and supporting the management of ongoing conservation work.

TNC’s Nature Bonds for ocean conservation with Belize, the Seychelles, Barbados and Gabon have collectively refinanced more than $1.2 billion in debt to unlock $400 million for the protection and improved management of 1.8 million km2 of ocean – an area the size of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ambitious projects like Nature Bonds understandably require collaboration across many sectors. TNC works with governments, financial institutions, NGO partners and local communities to ensure projects achieve both conservation goals and sound fiscal management. Despite the complexity, we have institutions and partners lining up to collaborate because it provides long-term technical financial and conservation assistance to effectively finance and implement those commitments for conservation outcomes. Moreover, it provides an investment grade product that buyers are looking for.

While debt-for-nature conversions can go a long way toward helping low- and middle-income countries finance conservation, they are not a cure-all – it’s vital that countries continue to draw on other funding mechanisms like grants, concessionary financing and private investment and that wealthy countries fulfill their pledges to deliver climate finance for developing countries.

Moreover, by supporting platforms governed by the Indigenous Peoples and local communities, we can flip the script on financing from a top-down approach and trust in the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and local communities while providing scientific and technical support.

Working in over 70 countries, we are fortunate to have an extensive local network of on the ground partners that are leading the charge in what bottom-up community lead conservation looks like. Of course, each location is incredibly unique which means the systems need to adapt around those circumstances.

One such community is located in Colombia’s Magdalena River Basin, a vital ecosystem that supports the livelihoods of more than 75% of the population. In partnership with local NGOs such as Fundacion Alma, TNC selected three high-risk wetlands for pilot interventions and held community workshops to identify adaptation measures. Community members, project staff, and scientific experts worked together to consider factors like community interest, technical feasibility, ecological impact, and cost-benefit analysis. Thanks to this approach, we were able to establish the three wetlands as regionally protected areas, restore forest land, develop wetland ranger groups and facilitate knowledge networks including delivery of over 50 educational events and trainings. This work would be impossible without deep collaboration alongside the people who have local knowledge and directly benefit from adaptation efforts.

Investments in adaptation are ultimately investments in securing value chain stability

Nothing short of radical collaboration across governments – both national and local — businesses, civil society and local communities will help us address the climate crisis at the speed and scale necessary. The climate and biodiversity crises have enormous economic consequences – the World Economic Forum reports that 5 of the 10 most significant risks over a 10-year period are related to climate and nature – that will profoundly impact the private sector. TNC has a role in showing the private sector how its investments in adaptation should look beyond a short-term “business case” bottom line and recognize the value of building resilience. Investments in adaptation are ultimately investments in securing value chain stability and this is a key consideration for the private sector.

Whether addressing extreme heat in the Southwest of the U.S., coral damage from storms in the Pacific, grasslands in Asia, or forests in Brazil, we must work hand in glove with businesses, governments, national and sub-national, as well as frontline communities, to deploy community-driven climate adaptation. Doing so without all the parties at the table will simply not deliver results for nature or people.

TNC joined the Race to Resilience Campaign with the Resilient Freshwater initiative in 2023, contributing to the adaptation and resilience agenda of the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions with evidence on the role of nature positive action to secure water quality and availability. Water Funds have existed since 20 years and are proven solutions scaled globally. 

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