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Of all the times in recent history to assume a new leadership position, mid-2020 was surely among the toughest. Nevertheless, this did not deter Bruno Oberle from stepping into a new appointment as the director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last July.
In many ways, he’s a renaissance man for these precise times, with a 40-year career cross-bred with finance, diplomacy, professorship and environmental policy. He has represented Switzerland as its state secretary for the environment, helped establish the Green Climate Fund and served as a leader of the Global Environment Facility.
With 2030 beckoning as the next flag in the ground for global climate goals, IUCN stands at the helm of some of the leading initiatives and approaches to get us there, including “nature-based solutions,” a category of climate action that IUCN has spearheaded and defined for the past decade, and the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which aims to mitigate climate change through restoring and conserving valuable landscapes in the decade ahead.
Set in front of the pandemic’s yet-unknown full scope of effects, these efforts will only be achieved through sectors that have only collaborated sparsely in the past – science, finance, tech, health, policy – working more intricately together. Luckily, Oberle doesn’t seem to work any other way, as he here shared with Landscape News.
In what ways did the backdrop of a global pandemic shape your experience of stepping into a new leadership role?
From a purely logistical point of view, the global pandemic prevented me from traveling in my first days and months at IUCN. This gave me time to study, reflect on, and understand the organization at a deeper level. I know, however, that the contacts and knowledge I gain from my future activities “on the ground” will be crucial in allowing me to fully grow into my role as Director General.
Why do you believe IUCN chose someone with as strong an economic background as yours to be its leader at this time?
Economics has always been essential to conservation, and vice versa. Nature is hugely important to the economy, providing food, materials, clean water and air, and much more. In fact, the World Economic Forum finds that roughly half of global GDP is dependent on nature. The challenge is aligning economic incentives to use natural resources sustainably and support conservation.
At the same time, economic drivers underlie essentially all threats to nature, including, for example, over-exploitation, habitat loss, invasive species and, of course, climate change. To successfully conserve nature, we need to understand and shift these underlying economic drivers of threats to nature.
As we look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to recognize and act on these linkages. Only a green, nature-based recovery will get the planet on the right track and help prevent future public health threats.
Furthermore, as the world recovers from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, I will ensure that IUCN is a key voice in the global discussions on using this recovery to improve the sustainability of our societies and economies.
What will the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic mean for the conservation of nature? How can funds – from both the public and private sectors – still be mobilized?
Some conservation projects are already seeing their funding affected by the pandemic, and there are long-term funding concerns. At the same time, we must not forget that investing in healthy nature is key to the economic recovery.
The pandemic has underlined how surprisingly and utterly dependent the entire world and global economy are on nature. It is encouraging to see green investments figure prominently in proposals aimed at stimulating the recovery. As the conservation community, we need to demonstrate how conservation can contribute to economic recovery, create jobs, generate income, help tackle climate change and reduce future health risks.
To give just one example, in the U.S., studies have shown that investments in coastal and forest restoration and management implemented in response to the 2008 recession created more jobs per dollar than investments in renewable energy and greatly outperformed traditional industries, such as the oil and gas or financial industries.
In your own words, how would you define ‘nature-based solutions,’ and why are they so high on IUCN’s agenda at this time?
Nature-based solutions are actions to protect, manage and restore ecosystems in a way that enables us to deliver concrete benefits for people and biodiversity. Critically, what sets nature-based solutions apart from other conservation efforts is that they are designed to address today’s pressing societal challenges such as climate change, food security and disaster risk reduction. They are high on IUCN’s agenda because of their enormous global potential to help us build a sustainable future and overcome fundamental societal challenges.
However, nature-based solutions are often misunderstood and are currently underutilized by governments, the private sector and local communities. After decades of work in this area, for example on forest landscape restoration, mangrove protection and ecosystem-based adaptation, IUCN and its members have recently articulated how nature-based solutions can be effectively applied and scaled up in a robust, systematic manner as part of national economic development strategies. Over the past two years, and with the input of over 800 experts from 100 countries, IUCN developed the new Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions providing a guide to help users design, verify and scale up such projects, which are essential for the world to meet its climate and biodiversity goals.
With the Global Standard, we finally have a tool that enables us to meet our development needs thanks to a healthy ecosystem, rather than at its expense. This amounts to a new paradigm, an approach to conservation whereby biodiversity actions can provide for the needs of people and nature through deliberate and purposeful design.
What is needed most to ensure the success of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration?
What is needed above all is action – individuals, companies, NGOs, governments, everyone is called upon to contribute to this global movement. This action needs to be collaborative, cooperative, synergistic and prioritized across agendas. The achievements we’ve already seen under the Bonn Challenge can serve as an example and a catalyst for this. The Decade belongs to all of us, and it can be a vehicle to transform traditional approaches to economic growth while ensuring that the ecosystems that we depend on are protected and their ecological integrity secured for generations to come. The Decade is energizing IUCN and its vast network of members, partners and experts, reinforcing our longstanding commitment to conserving and restoring ecosystems, and building on advances that we have already made to enable restoration actions around the world.
Awareness of the current climate and biodiversity crises is growing, as is support for nature-based solutions to address them. Ecosystem restoration is a fundamental pillar of the nature-based solutions approach because of its ability to improve ecosystems and habitats that are suffering from degradation and desertification, with tangible consequences for humanity and species. The Decade jumpstarts the restorative urgency implicit in its name. It sets a timeline for everybody to bring the world onto a path of ecosystem recovery, from the mountaintops to the seafloor.
How is IUCN addressing consumer behavior?
Consumer behavior, through well-informed and motivated consumers, is a key part of ensuring that society becomes truly sustainable. However, consumer choice is limited to what the market offers, and the market takes time to respond to bottom-up pressure. Looking another level beyond that, the production systems that use the market to deliver goods to consumers are deeply intertwined with government. Political signals and governmental measures such as regulations, taxation and subsidies will allow production systems to improve their offerings fundamentally. Ultimately, this will give consumers increased freedom and more opportunities to purchase sustainably.
This is why IUCN does not seek to influence consumer behavior directly and instead seeks to influence government policy and the private sector to mitigate impacts of consumption on nature. One example is our research into the sources of marine plastics, or our recent work quantifying the benefits of sustainable agriculture for food security and for the economy.
You’ve worn many hats throughout your career, as a consultant, a scientist, an economist, a policy advisor, an entrepreneur. Why is this diverse background important for leading an environmental organization at this time?
As the Director General of IUCN, I will continue to wear most of these hats – only now, all at once. I hope that the diversity of my own background and experience will reinforce IUCN’s unique role in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises.
These crises aren’t niche issues; they are fundamental, interlinked challenges we all face – and we need to address them together, from all angles and with all our energy and focus. In this effort, everyone needs to contribute their voice and do their part: science and academia, policy makers and governments, businesses, activists, consumers. IUCN, thanks to its unique structure as a diverse membership union that includes state- and non-state actors both big and small, plays a key role as a driver of change and a convener that brings leaders from across these sectors to the table.