U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration could lead to green global economy

Unprecedented opportunity to funnel funds to restore environmental equilibrium

Satya Tripathi, U.N. assistant secretary-general and head of New York office at UN Environment, speaks at a discussion forum about unlocking private capital to restore degraded landscapes in Africa. Global Landscapes Forum, Nairobi, August 2018. Photo: GLF
26 March 2019
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Working on landscape restoration projects at a global scale is second nature to Satya Tripathi

Known for catalyzing trailblazing initiatives with significant socioeconomic outcomes, the U.N. assistant secretary-general and head of New York office at UN Environment is mulling how best to leverage a new opportunity.

The landmark U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) to accelerate the restoration of degraded ecosystems announced this month in New York offers an unprecedented chance to funnel funds and support worldwide initiatives aimed at restoring equilibrium to the environment and meeting targets embedded in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I’d like to see it used as a bridge to achieve ground-shifting results, not just in the space of ecosystem restoration, which is the key focus, but through grassroots prosperity for people at the bottom of the pyramid, indigenous communities and our transition to a green economy,” Tripathi said. “I’m really excited about the numerous possibilities and paradigm shifts that are possible to achieve through this as a bridge to our sustainable future. It’s extremely crucial, not just for humans but for all species — because this could save us all.”

The decade recognizes the vital role forested landscapes play in stabilizing the climate, offering support for 3.2 billion people whose livelihoods are at risk from deforestation resulting from resource extraction and agricultural expansion. It provides a timeline upon which to accelerate multiple U.N. development, environment and climate frameworks already in place, such as the SDGs and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Tripathi helped catalyze the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility (TLFF) in Indonesia and the Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF), both of which are primarily focused on restoring landscapes through sustainable forestry or sustainable agriculture. The aim is to leverage “private finance for public good” on a massive scale to achieve transformative social and environmental impact in developing countries. The projects demonstrate how ecosystem management can be taken to the next level by interconnecting complex landscapes through strong networks.

“If we use the U.N. decade as a platform to drive paradigm shifts, it has tremendous potential for saving the planet,” Tripathi said. “We need ideas, the power of ideas – I’m not daunted by the size or the complexity of ideas. I believe it’s possible to achieve anything; just don’t try to do everything alone, build a partnership. If you build a partnership and respect the value that every partner brings into it then it will be a formidable coalition of the willing.”

Tripathi shared his insights with Landscapes News in the following interview:

How can the upcoming U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration succeed?

All our efforts trying to fix landscape problems without focusing on people – the primary reason why we haven’t succeeded in the past is because we have left people out of the conversation. People are both a good and a bad influence – in this case primarily a bad influence. As humans we all have positive thoughts and negative thoughts in us – sometimes driven by need, sometimes driven by greed. Especially for those driven by need, we must be much more empathetic to their requirements for their families, their lives and livelihoods because that is where we find the solution to the problems of ecosystem degradation and a solution through restoration. We need to engage them.

What makes the idea of a decade focused on landscape restoration so compelling?

There is a sense of urgency among governments and stakeholders given the dire prognosis made by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on what is in store if we breach the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold (a target under the 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change to restrict overall global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the post-industrial era). In El Salvador Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Lina Pohl, we have a great champion. She not only put this idea for a U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration forward, but she led from the front. We need to really change course and the time is now. Over the next 10 years we really need to raise our climate action ambitions to a whole new level.

What opportunities and challenges do we face?

The opportunity is that we’re talking about restoring hundreds of millions of hectares across the world, and we are also talking about feeding 10 million people by 2050. We ask the wrong questions. We put out false binaries. We say where are we going to get more land? How are we going to feed all these people? These are the wrong questions. The right question is that within our limited resources how are we going to be more productive? How are we going to have more sustainable landscapes? How are we going to engage people in restoring those landscapes? Whenever you talk of landscape restoration, you are talking about a large number of people being employed.

Are you referring to behavioral change? What is the underlying principle?

We are the well fed and the well looked after. We project our morality onto the hungry masses that have nothing to fall upon, nothing to feed their families with, nothing to send their children to school with and then we wonder why they aren’t behaving as well as we do, but we are the 1 percent. They are the 99 percent.  If we don’t produce the opportunities for them, there is no way ecosystems will be restored because degradation has been about greed, in many cases from big industry. It’s also about need where the people at the bottom of the pyramid are desperately looking for sustenance and when that is not available and the alternatives are not there, people find ways to feed themselves. I am not saying it is legally justified but if you talk to them, they will say it is morally justified. That’s what we’re dealing with.

What role can the Global Landscapes Forum play?

It can play a catalytic role. Thankfully the Global Landscapes Forum in the few years it has existed has done three things that I consider very significant from the perspective of this U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The first is that it’s galvanized people around the idea of landscapes. Formerly, we were talking projects, maybe big projects in some cases but projects nevertheless. Ecosystems are complex landscapes which are very strongly interconnected and if you don’t have the basic understanding of how they operate, then you have a piecemeal approach to solving the big problems of nature and it doesn’t work. The GLF has galvanized people into action.

The second aspect of the GLF I have really appreciated is that it reinvents itself every year through self-assessment. I think that’s a great quality for any young organization to have — not taking itself for granted but assessing and reassessing strengths, weaknesses and how to do better. I think that’s fantastic to see in a young entity such as the GLF.

Third, all of these ideas need financing because in the absence of resources all ideas are just that. They are great ideas, but they never get implemented. So, I think by bringing together key actors, producing and providing the platform for them to meet together and discuss partnerships, possibilities and how to bring about shared prosperity, I think GLF does a great service to the cause of ecosystem restoration. I think it can play a catalytic role for these three reasons.

What impact can the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration have on the SDGs?

We talk a lot about the 17 SDGs, and each one of them is intricately linked to environment and the climate. None of them would be achieved if environmental degradation continues at the rate it does now. Then, the pathway to a resilient and sustainable climate future falls apart because we don’t do what we need to do. The 2018 Emissions Gap Report tells us that currently we are not on track for 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius global warming. We are on track for 3.2 degrees, which is catastrophic.

How do we address this?

At 2 degrees we need to do three times more and if we want to be at 1.5 degrees we have to do five times more. It’s exponential, and whatever we’re talking about now – let’s say in another three or four years we still haven’t done much and we’re still talking – it would possibly become 10 times more which will make it impossible for us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. So that is why it’s extremely important for us to understand that restoration would actually serve all the SDGs. Land, ocean and atmosphere are the basis for all human existence, all species to be fair, all species which are articulated in the 17 SDGs. And that brings us to mobilize ing private finance because without private finance we are not going to go very far. 

Do you think that eventually we will be able to drop the word “green” and the economy will just be green by default?

Absolutely, but we have to start with specific catalytic ideas. The bottom line is that we have templates to draw from. We have opportunities to capitalize upon and I don’t think private finance is unwilling. We just have to create catalytic opportunities that make it possible for the trillions of dollars to be deployed.

Do you have specific ideas about how to attract private finance?

Attracting private finance is not a problem. There are enough private finance entities that are waiting to be heard. They want to deploy resources, so I don’t think that’s a problem. The problem is in building partnerships that manage the risks in an appropriate manner.

What is your connection with nature?

It’s symbiotic. We’re nothing without nature. That’s how I see nature. If I can’t breathe, I don’t exist. If I can’t drink water, I don’t exist. If I don’t have food, I don’t exist. If I have destroyed my home or the web of life that sustains us – the friendly microbes – I’m nothing. I don’t exist. Humans are nothing without nature, but we pretend as if nature exists for us and not that we all exist in a very delicate balance together. That’s how I see my connection with nature. I feel that all landscapes are critical to our existence: forested landscapes; agricultural landscapes; oceanic ecosystems and urban landscapes. 

How do these U.N. thematic decades get funded?

The decade itself is in the abstract. It’s the idea that has gotten the approval of the General Assembly – the countries of the world. It has goals, objectives and targets, but then those must be translated into concrete deliverables country by country, landscape by landscape, region by region. I think we have enough architecture already in place to bring all of that together. UN Environment has its own resources that countries and institutions put forward on a regular basis, so within the limits of our resources we’ll continue to support once the idea of the decade gets translated into concrete deliverables and programs. There might be funding but this is early days. Great ideas with the backing of great partnerships do always get funded.

We as humans are allowed to dominate, even though we are really just as vulnerable as any other part of nature. Looking through that lens, what about the role of the Christian church?  How significant it is that Pope Francis expressed concerns about the impact of unsustainable human activities on the environment in the major Laudato Si’ (Praise Be) document in 2015?

He said something wonderful. He said that the poor do not need charity they need dignity. If you can create opportunities around degraded landscapes to bring them back to life by engaging the millions (of people) that are completely deprived, that is giving them dignity and sovereignty over their inalienable rights to the land they inhabit. Every religion talks about healthy ecosystems, healthy climate, respect for nature, there is no religion that says that you should abuse nature and destroy it.

Any final thoughts?

I think the message needs to go out to as many people in as many countries and regions as possible because communications has been one of the Achilles heels of the climate challenge. I often ask myself how is it that we have such as an existential challenge facing humanity and we don’t get it. I think poor communication is partly to blame, or that we have been too intellectual for our own good in articulating the challenge.

I think this (GLF movement) is something that people connect very well to: land and the sustenance that comes from it; oceans and all the productive ecosystems that we draw from to live. The message needs to go to as many people as possible that the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is in place and that the U.N. and other partners are willing to do everything within their collective abilities to support the thousands of actors that will come together around the decade to deliver the results.


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