I am delighted to welcome Justin Adams to The Nature Conservancy as Global Managing Director of Lands. Justin has more than 20 years of executive experience in the areas of energy, sustainable agriculture and smart land-use. His leadership in these areas will help us bring our traditional land conservation efforts—the heart and soul of the Conservancy’s work for more than 60 years—to the next level.
Justin and I recently sat down to discuss his perspective on the global challenges of food, energy and development, and his view of the Conservancy’s role in bringing innovative conservation solutions to this space.
Tercek: First, tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up, and what was one of your early connections with nature?
Adams: I grew up in northern England, in the county of Yorkshire, a few hours north of London. It’s a mosaic landscape, with many agricultural fields, and woodland. It was also a heavy mining area for coal, and many mines were still active as I grew up.
Aside from playing in the local fields and woods, my early connections with nature were shaped by visits to my grandparents in Kenya.
Perhaps my earliest recollection was when I was six years old. Seeing the wide-open grasslands, the incredible abundance of wildlife, the red earth, the clouds and sky. I can still picture it all. And, also feeling the rhythm of life there—the music, the vibrancy of the culture, and the kindness and warmth of the people. These visits made a lasting impression.
Tercek: What attracted you to join The Nature Conservancy to continue your career?
Adams: For the last 20 years, I’ve been searching for ways to scale solutions to big sustainable development challenges. I’ve worked in and set up a number of small businesses – and have also worked in very large companies – around the intertwined issues of renewable energy, sustainable agricultural production and biological carbon sequestration.
For these issues, scale is still the question. That’s what motivates me. The world’s forests, rivers and soils provide huge value to society, only a fraction of which we’ve quantified, and all of which we take for granted. We have a tremendous opportunity to figure out how we make that value an integral part of decision making for countries as they look at their own economic development and companies as they look at new opportunities for growth.
This thinking is at the core of the Conservancy’s global vision. And, that is why I’m here.
Tercek: What are our biggest opportunities for impact on these global environmental issues?
Adams: There are no private sector companies, or governments for that matter, whose core mission is to address the critical environmental challenges that the world is facing. Companies are focused on optimizing efficiency and maximizing economic return of its core product or service. Governments are focused on creating jobs and growth.
But, the Conservancy’s core mission is conservation. Our product, our service to people, is nature. This mission, combined with our size and reach, is what makes us a valuable and unique partner. We can help drive more efficiency to a company’s core product and we can help countries develop their cities and infrastructure in more economical and sustainable ways—whether it’s smarter decisions on developing agricultural corridors in Africa, or mining leases in Mongolia, or reducing deforestation in Brazil.
So, it comes back to the question of scale. Our biggest opportunity is bringing cutting edge science, tools, and innovative conservation practices to whole industries and governments—to make nature an integral part of their core growth strategies. Our impact can be greater than the sum of all our projects. But, we must be willing to think further outside the NGO box.
Tercek: Can you expand on how these opportunities might play out in our Lands work?
Adams: Our global team has a huge opportunity to guide smarter business and policy decisions for how we use our lands and its resources—issues at the center of the development and conservation nexus.
I believe the Conservancy’s Development by Design approach can become a truly transformative tool for land-intensive industries and governments all over the world. It provides scientific underpinning for more sustainable large-scale development decisions, both for siting and reducing impacts. We need to get it in the hands of more people making these choices.
We can also dramatically increase our land conservation impact through innovative financing and policies. For example, we can conserve more of the world’s tropical forests – the world’s greatest carbon storage solution – through funding from carbon-intensive businesses. This is still one of the biggest opportunities for the conservation movement. We are starting to see momentum with California’s climate law. Conservancy staff have been intimately engaged in these policy negotiations for years, and California is providing a model that can be explored at larger scales.
So, my team must be able to look across the organization and focus on the select, optimal ways to leverage that work on the global stage.
We’re concentrating on the core strategies of guiding sustainable development and agriculture, expanding tropical forest conservation and carbon sequestration, and enhancing indigenous- and community-led conservation. And, all the while, the overarching connective tissue is land conservation. It’s our core product.
Q: You spent 10 years working on renewable strategies at BP. How do you plan to apply that experience in your new role?
Adams: I worked at BP during a handful of years where a whole cadre of employees like me felt we could really change the world. We were tasked with looking at how BP could genuinely go beyond petroleum—to bring sustainability into its core business. I sat on the executive team of BP’s renewables division, charged with investing $8 billion to build and lead a new low carbon division.
One thing I learned quickly is that the hydrocarbon industry is not going away any time soon. Fossil energy still accounts for more than 80 percent of global energy demand. To have any chance of dealing with climate risk, we have to deal with the carbon in the atmosphere.
BP had been investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) for more than a decade. With a large demonstration project in Algeria and several aborted commercial projects we knew CCS was technically feasible but economically unattractive—without a very high price placed on carbon.
So, I also set up a new team focused on forest carbon to investigate the role biological sequestration could play. The more we learned, the clearer the potential became. You could sequester significant amounts of carbon at modest cost, and also deliver all sorts of other co-benefits to society by protecting biodiversity, improving food security, enhancing water quality, and empowering communities. Conservation-led strategies to mitigate climate risk are one of the best investments we can make in the coming decades.
I also learned how hard it is for any organization to innovate away from its core competence. There were all sorts of forces that constantly brought BP back to its core purpose of extracting fossil energy as efficiently and responsibly as it can. Large corporations want to work more responsibly but can’t get there on their own—that’s why our work with corporations is so important. Part of protecting the lands and waters on which all life depends is determining how to make that mission an integral part of economic development.
Q: I’ve heard you’re an avid cyclist. Any recent standout trips?
Adams: I actually did recently take a wonderful trip 300 km across France – from the Normandy coast to Paris – with my 13-year-old son, my 10-year-old daughter (riding on a tandem bike with me) and a few other dads and kids.
We cycled for three days across farmlands and through the villages of northern France. We camped in the evenings. The weather was beautiful the whole way. When we arrived in Paris, under the Eiffel tower, the look on my kids’ faces, their sense of accomplishment, was so gratifying. It meant the world to me.
Of course, now they want to go to Amsterdam next year.
Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.
Justin Adams is Global Managing Director of Lands at The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinCMAdams.