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Investing in biodiversity would win huge benefits, says CIFOR’s Robert Nasi

Sit at the table or end up on the menu
Robert Nasi, director general, Center for International Forestry Research, speaking at the GLF Biodiversity Digital Conference from Bogor, Indonesia. CIFOR/screenshot

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These remarks by the director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) were made at the closing of the Global Landscapes Forum Biodiversity Digital Conference: One World – One Health. CIFOR jointly coordinates the GLF with the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Bank.

We are clearly at an unprecedented crossroads.

We have created the conditions for total social collapse, but contrary to previous collapses, like the demise of the Romans and the Mayans, for example, we are in the fortunate position of having enough knowledge to know what we need to do avoid it.

We are confronting an existential crisis. Biodiversity loss and climate change are interwoven, each one reinforcing the other, fueled by inequalities.

If we do not solve the problems facing the planet, we are going to have a difficult time. Not that Mother Earth will care if we disappear, but it will be a very annoying process for us.

So, we must act, but we must not be fooled into believing that any sort of technology exists that can save us, like Star Trek.

Technology can help us to a degree, but we must urgently change our development model and the basic paradigms by which we manage the Earth’s resources. There is no such thing as indefinite sustainable growth.

We must talk about how we can conserve our remaining biodiversity.

For many people, the mention of conserving biodiversity conjures up thoughts of endangered animal species — tigers, orangutans or whales, to name a few.

We have good reason to save these emblematic animals, they are beautiful, the world will be a much sadder place without them. But like forests, whales, for example, also play a vital role in the carbon cycle and have a financial value, by some estimates representing $1 trillion in carbon stocks at the price of carbon tons.

Not only emblematic species, but all pieces of biodiversity matter, including the trees in your back yard, a bush that grows in the middle of the road, regardless of where it is or what it is, we must conserve what remains.

In the meantime, while conserving biodiversity, we will expect a certain standard of living — a decent standard of living.

For that, we need to produce goods and services, which means that we must mainstream biodiversity into the productive sector. That is something that is very important that we can do, and we can do it with benefits.

Some sectors are of course, directly impacted by biodiversity, big agriculture is on borrowed time from biodiversity for pollination, for pest control, for plant growth.

Others, like the energy sector, which is largely dependent on fossil fuels, may also believe that they are immune to biodiversity loss. But they are fooling themselves because without biodiversity they will not survive either.

As well as conserving what is left by mainstreaming biodiversity into our production sector, we also need to restore all that has been degraded.

We need to turn restoration into an enterprise that creates jobs, services and livelihoods on top of restoring biodiversity.

Empirical data show that if one dollar is invested in restoration there is a return of $7 to $10, so the question is, why are we not doing it.

That is why it is very important to note the visionary action of the United Nations in declaring the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021 to 2030. It is the right moment.

Critics will say that to restore biodiversity, lots of money is required, cost incentives must be introduced and that it is not possible. But that makes a terrible argument – in fact, it is a non-argument.

Each year, we spend about $500 billion on subsidies for fossil fuel, about $600 billion dollars on agricultural subsidies and about $1.3 trillion on military expenditures.

And if you draw a parallel and consider the current pandemic, it is obvious that spending this amount of money did not help us to win the war against COVID-19. When we bailed out the banks after the 2008 financial collapse, the direct amount was around $1 trillion, but the actual cost to society is estimated at $16 trillion.

What these numbers show is that we do have money, but we have to re-prioritize where it is invested.

If we wanted to invest in conserving biodiversity we could.

Estimates indicate that the amount needed is about $80 billion a year, and to restore degraded land, between $40 to $50 billion a year would be enough.

So, if you look at what we are spending on subsidies, bailing out banks and on weapons of mass destruction, we could well have saved the biodiversity of the world several times and restored our land a couple of times, too.

We all need to sit around the table: Indigenous Peoples; local communities; the private sector; the public sector and civil society.

Those that will not sit at the table will quickly end up on the menu.

We have enough knowledge to do what must be done. We have enough money.

If we want to invest the money into biodiversity, climate change and land restoration, we know that there is a massive return to be made in the medium to long term that will dwarf any money that we spend now.

So, the existential question is why we are not doing it.

We can do it.

At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and our sister organization World Agroforestry, in tandem with new project, Resilient Landscapes, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and our many partners, we can do it.

We can bring others to the table with us and set up our own menu to conserve biodiversity, mitigate climate change and reduce inequalities.

We are starting a call for action. We need to apply pressure and ensure that we are solving the crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and inequality.

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