“Forests precede civilization; deserts follow.” It seems apt to quote a nineteenth century French writer and politician, François-René Chateaubriand, from the climate summit in Paris this week. But even more so when you consider the context for his writing. He was writing against the backdrop of industrialization, urbanization and revolution – at a time when we were still devouring our forests as fuel before our search for energy moved underground.
Many of the people at COP 21 are seeking solutions for their development challenges against a similar backdrop – of industrialization and urbanization – today exacerbated by huge population increases and of course, the real-time effects of climate change.
While most of the Paris headlines have focused on political divisions, finance and new energy technologies, we often overlook the solution that has been deployed on a global scale for hundreds of millions of years. It’s called nature. Our natural infrastructure is the best technology we have.
The panel discussion that I took part in today focused on how to advance nature-based solutions to these challenges. I shared the stage with French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal and other senior government representatives of Monaco and the Philippines as well as conservation leaders. All of the panelists are advocating for change in how we get better at decoupling economic growth from environmental damage.
The true power of nature
Our latest research tells us that better management of forests, farms and other ecosystems can deliver at least 20% of the carbon mitigation we need in striving to reach the 2°C goal. Over and above that, we have natural defenses – like coral reefs and mangroves and coastal marshes – that can provide cost-effective adaptation solutions to help reduce risk for coastal communities from climate change and extreme weather events. In cities, nature-based solutions can make communities more resilient and healthier, and we need to better manage scarce water supplies and develop infrastructure that works with nature not against it.
Because my role is focused on the world’s land-based resources, I want to briefly explain how we are working to unlock that important 20% of carbon mitigation. There are three strategies we are focused on – firstly, avoiding conversion of lands with high ecological significance; secondly, improving land management practices on our existing production lands; and thirdly, restoring degraded lands on a global scale.
Working with governments, corporates, partners and smallholders, we are making progress, and building the case for this work example by example, including: nutrient management and soil carbon strategies in the US; sustainable soy production in Latin America; economically viable reforestation work in the US and China; sustainable palm oil strategies in Indonesia; and financial innovation that is improving cattle ranching in Kenya.
Examples like these can show us the way out of our development vs environment dichotomy. It is good for business, good for the people – and it is good politics. And of course it is good for the environment.
Conservation organizations can sometimes be seen as standing in the way of development, but this is exactly the opposite approach. This is about creating the opportunities for people to do more with their land. The benefits are dramatic, and multi-faceted: increased production; improved livelihoods; protected forests, landscapes and watersheds; and of course more biodiversity. Which of our technology solutions can provide all of that?
In French, the word civilisation is used only in the singular form – both when Chateaubriand was writing and today. It means the progress of humanity as a whole, which is exactly what we are all striving for in Paris this week.
Justin Adams is The Nature Conservancy’s Global Managing Director for Lands. You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinCMAdams.