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The approaches that scientific communities are taking to combat the global crises of COVID-19, climate change and biodiversity loss are something like Matryoshka dolls. There’s first the mother One Health approach, wherein lie the fields of human health, animal health and ecological health. Without being addressed in tandem, disasters in each are bound to occur.
Ecological health, in the eyes of an increasing number of environmental scientists and decision-makers, is then bound in approach known as the “landscape approach.” The landscape approach seeks to devise new ways of sustainably managing the world’s lands and ecosystems by including all stakeholders involved in each – from children who will one day inherit ancestral lands to financiers to presidents. This approach is the foundation of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), the worlds’ largest knowledge- and science-led platform for sustainable land use, and is increasingly being mainstreamed in policy, finance and other scientific fields.
In a landmark year for biodiversity with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets coming to a close, and in light of COVID-19, the GLF hosted a digital event on 28–29 October called GLF Biodiversity: One World – One Health, focused on the inextricable links between biodiversity loss and global pandemics. However, over the course of the two days, it became clear that the underlying identity was different, broader: the landscape approach and the One Health approach can be integrated to powerful effect. (Read the summary of the event’s first day here.)
“Health has always been a targeted outcome of the landscape approach,” said the GLF’s managing director John Colmey. “But what we’ve learned here is that it must also be an objective. Speaker after speaker has highlighted the importance of bringing these two multi-disciplined, multi-sectored, collaborative communities together and to integrate One Health into the landscape approach and all of our thinking. It might be the last important sector barrier we break down.”
The event comprised 50 scientific sessions, plenaries, youth dialogues, virtual tours of ecosystems and documentary screenings, joined by nearly 5,000 people from 119 countries. It also delivered 15 policy-informing white papers from participating organizations, including multiple U.N. agencies, the World Wildlife Fund, the World Bank and the GLF’s founding partner CIFOR-ICRAF. In many, the landscape approach was directly and indirectly stated as foundational to bending the curve of biodiversity loss, and therefore to bending curve of disease spread – or preventing a curve from ever starting.
The pivotal decade
The story of biodiversity began about 13.8 billion years ago when the Big Bang created the elements that construct planet Earth. About 3.7 to 4 billion years ago was when these elements began to combine to give rise to forms of life, evolving into the 8.7 million known species we have today. “Life on Earth is a biochemical engine,” said Shahid Naeem, renowned ecologist who chairs Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. “It is the chemistry that makes our climate equitable, our air breathable, our water potable and our soil fertile.”
Now, biodiversity is at a turning point. It’s being lost at an “unprecedented pace,” according to a report released by the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity discussed at the event and following on last year’s sweeping report from IPBES that warned of a million species being well on the path to extinction. Both made clear that as biodiversity declines, so too does the health of humans and the health of the planet.
“Preserving biodiversity is so important for our food, our energy, our medicines, our clothes our lives,” said Bård Vegar Solhjell, director general of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). “Changing our land use and preserving nature is the most important thing to deal with. We simply have to take better care of our natural habitats… And we have to make land use a leading issue in international debates on sustainability.”
“We are now living in the sixth mass extinction,” warned Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) director general Robert Nasi, nothing that of four of the last five were also triggered by climate change. “Scientists need to look at the way systems work, how you bring together social and biophysical science to understand what will happen.”
2020 marked the deadline for the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the prevailing global set of biodiversity goals for the last decade, none of which were achieved – including the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol addressing genetic biodiversity, the 10th anniversary of which fell on the second day of the GLF event.
The sentiment over the two days was bittersweet: the world has failed to conserve biodiversity, but the framework in development for the coming decade – the “2030 agenda” that will be negotiated and adopted by U.N. parties next year – presents an opportunity for massive reform and ambition, including expressed recognition of biodiversity’s role in disease prevention and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
“May our deliberations be congruent with the warnings of Mother Nature,” urged a Indigenous spiritual leader from Kyrgyzstan in a blessing of the event.
“The post 2020-framework builds on the theory of change that aims to bring transformation of society’s relationship with biodiversity,” said Johan Meijer, a researcher at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “The framework proposes a number of goals to reduce various threats to biodiversity and to ensure sustainable use of biodiversity to meet people’s needs… As most of these challenges are managed at the scale of landscapes, it is actually worrying to me that the concept of the landscape approach is not yet part of [the post-2020] framework and the underlying theory of change.”
Multiple speakers hailed the decade ahead as the “decisive decade” for the future of humanity, giving more urgency to the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which begins next year as a way to address One Health challenges through restoring the world’s 2 billion hectares of degraded ecosystems through application of the landscape approach.
A quick look at the number$
“We’re in the middle of this pandemic nightmare,” said Christopher Knowles a sustainable finance expert who now serves as an advisor to CIFOR-ICRAF’s new sustainable finance platform Resilient Landscapes. “Many people will say that everything must come after social, economic and health recovery. But I think we also need to remember that if we don’t have nature, we don’t have an economy to recover.”
According to a recent headline-making report from insurance firm Swiss Re, USD 42 trillion – more than have of the world’s GDP – depends on biodiversity, and one-fifth of all countries are at risk of ecosystem collapse because of biodiversity loss. To protect biodiversity and sustainable landscapes, there’s an annual finance gap that falls between USD 600 to USD 800, according to Knowles.
An estimated USD 4 billion could fund the research needed to identify all infectious diseases with the potential to cause another global pandemic, according to the Global Virome Project.
USD 5.2 trillion is spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies.
“There is no alternative to redirecting subsidies harmful to nature,” said Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s minister for the Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development who has been instrumental in establishing the country as a global sustainable finance hub. “GDP growth is regarded to be most important indicator to measure success, but this is not reality. We rely on very simplistic and very unique indicators, whereas the world is more complex.”
Part of the financial burden falls upon global leadership demanding accountability of investors to promote ecosystem conservation and avoid greenwashing. “Governments should direct development banks to use their cash and convening power to become global role models for reporting their impacts on land degradation, biodiversity and climate change,” said Sir Robert Watson, head of the scientific advisory group for the UNEP Global Assessments Synthesis Report.
But in order to employ finance for transformative change, funding must be properly put in the hands of local communities according to their needs. This requires intermediaries between investors and those to whom their money is flowing, as well as easier access to finance for people living in rural and remote areas. “There’s a whole part of our ecosystem that’s just not connected to traditional markets,” said Jennifer Pryce, CEO of sustainable investment firm Calvert Impact Capital.
“They can’t walk into a bank and get a loan. Their business perhaps is perceived to be very risky, so going and finding finance on capital markets or raising equity is very challenging. So they get left out, they get left behind. That is often what we see with these very local community investments that are really at the heart of conserving the biodiversity of our planet.”
Local / global
Four of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots are found in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, a mountain range draped across eight countries in South-Central Asia. Nearly 2 billion people live in its altitudes and river basins, where the food produced caters to nearly half the world’s total population. Yet 70 to 80 percent of its natural habitats have been changed or lost over the course of the past 5 centuries due to human land-use and climate change, and 64 percent of its glaciers can be expected to melt under current greenhouse gas emissions trends.
“If something happens here, the whole planet feels it – the mountains are hot spots of climate change,” said Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of ICIMOD. “Biodiversity is the life support for the Hindu Kush Himalaya region and for the planet itself.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the region’s local and global threats to food security, clean water, livelihoods, ecosystem conservation and climate change mitigation, making the Hindu Kush Himalaya a poster child for the integration of sectors and societal dimensions crucial to preventing and responding to the current crises of pandemics, climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity. Political leaders and government, scientists, international organizations, private sector finance, spiritual leaders, and Indigenous and local communities all must join forces to protect the region, Sharma said.
Managing the region in this time of crisis means working across established boundaries, exemplified in the four transboundary regions striped through the Himalaya Kush Himalaya to protect natural ecosystems spanning country borders. Similarly in Africa, policy analyst John Ajjugo pointed to the importance of a transboundary social ecological project spanning Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda to aid the safe movement of migratory pastoralists. Experts from the Amazon, Indonesia and the rangelands in Central Asia shared case studies embodying the same message – one that mirrors that of the One Health and landscape approaches and their bids to break down institutionalized siloes and work across national, subnational and sectoral divides.
COLANDS – Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability – is the hallmark project of the landscape approach, implementing it in hyper-localized contexts in three countries to develop a universally applicable framework. In a session hosted by scientists James Reed and Terry Sunderland, two of the key designers of the landscape approach, Reed cautioned that the approach requires “the interplay between local institutions, research organizations and political partners don’t have a good history of working together. When applying the landscape approach, it’s important to be aware of those non-interactions and even conflict in the past.”
Peter Daszak, a wildlife disease specialist who heads the New York–based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, stressed the collaboration needed to prevent future pandemics. “Viruses don’t check passports at the border,” he said in the closing plenary. “They just move right through. They don’t check how wealthy you are.”
Christiane Paulus, who heads the nature conservation agency of the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, echoed his words in a final word about the landscape approach. “Restoration of ecosystems can not only provide economic benefits but also a vision that goes beyond individual disciplines, borders and interests. That message is that we can restore our future.”