Building resilience in the system: A watershed moment for forests and finance

Monday 23rd March 2020

Michael Jenkins and Jan Cassin

It is hard to believe that it’s been just ten weeks or so since virologists identified a novel strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, after a small cluster of cases were reported on New Year’s Eve in Wuhan, China.

The disease may have jumped from an animal to humans some time in late 2019 at a wet market in Wuhan where live animals are sold and slaughtered. China’s leadership has announced it will crack down on the illegal wildlife trade and tighten regulations of wet markets.

But so long as we continue to push the frontier between nature and civilization – building roads, digging mines, clearing previously undisturbed forests, draining wetlands – some experts say that  the next pandemic is only a matter of time. Ebola, malaria, and HIV/AIDS have all been linked to deforestation. Land use change is bringing us into close contact for the first time with many animals and pathogens; three-quarters of new and emerging diseases are coming from animal-to-human transmission, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Protecting and restoring natural places, then, is a public health issue, just as much as it is a climate action issue, a biodiversity conservation issue, and a water security issue. Far from fearing nature as a source of pandemic, we need to recognize that we depend on our Earth’s good health. Healthy ecosystems provide food, timber, and medicine; sequester carbon; absorb floods and storm surges; filter our air; purify our water; and provide us with an endless source of beauty, recreation, and spiritual and cultural well-being.

Screenshot 2020-03-20 at 16.45.13

That also begs the question…why is global progress on nature-based solutions (NBS) so far behind where it needs to be?

Turning to long-term work, we feel there is a real risk that nature-based solutions (NBS) will not be executed at the ambitious scale at which countries have pledged to do so. Two-thirds of Paris Agreement country signatories include NBS in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But few include robust, quantifiable targets for NBS. And most NBS in NDCs are presented as future plans, not current priorities.

The finance bottleneck for investments in nature

How can we close the gap between ambition and action? A major bottleneck is funding. Most NDCs depend on the international community for finance for NBS, which to date hasn’t been forthcoming. Investments in agriculture, forestry, and other land use mitigation activities add up to only 2.5% of current climate finance. This despite science showing that nature-base strategies could cost-effectively deliver up to 37% of the mitigation needed by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.

The cavalry may be on its way: 2021-2030 is the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and we have seen promising signs of new energy in NBS commitments from governments, companies, and communities.

But we also need to look outside the climate box for finance. An untapped opportunity for scaling robust financial flows for NBS to achieve NDCs lies within countries’ own domestic water sectors.

NBS can be a shared vehicle for aligned water-climate investments

We’ve seen strong growth in investments by the water sector in NBS over the past decade. Many governments and utilities facing down intensifying water scarcity, pollution, and natural disasters see NBS as a vital water security solution.

Coronavirus has amplified the urgent need for major new investments to shore up water security. When 2.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water services, and half the global population lack access to safe sanitation, limiting the spread of a global pandemic becomes extremely difficult.

Investments in healthy landscapes cost-effectively help ensure clean, reliable water supplies. They prevent soil erosion, improve soil fertility and aquatic productivity, and help to buffer against storms and floods.

These investments also have climate co-benefits, especially if carefully designed. Interventions like reforestation or wetland restoration support not only water security but also climate mitigation, through enhanced carbon sequestration and by reducing the need for carbon-intensive infrastructure. These investments enhance resilience, too. Recall that for most people, climate change will be primarily experienced through water: droughts, storms, floods, and so forth.

Repairing a 1,400 year-old channel known as an 'amuna'
Repairing a 1,400 year-old channel known as an 'amuna'

Better together: NBS as a bridge between global climate, water, biodiversity, and development goals

In Peru, government leaders have astutely recognized this close relationship between water security and climate security. NBS investments are financed through innovative new water tariffs: nationally, over $100 million in tariffs is allocated to NBS for water security, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk management. It’s an important example for the world of how water sector investments can also support climate mitigation and resilience.

Finding synergies between water sector NBS investments and NDCs can leverage much-needed finance for natural climate solutions. Peru’s model, and other investment mechanisms like water funds, offer examples for designing and deploying NBS investments that meet both water and climate objectives.

Bridging water and climate security strategies also creates new financing possibilities: for example, bilateral climate funding provides upfront finance for restoration, while water tariffs provide cash flows to maintain NBS over time.

In order to make an investment case to the water sector, NBS projects have pioneered new planning and quantification tools, evaluating not only hydrological but also sustainable development outcomes. Demonstrating multiple benefits helps expand the pool of potential investors. This enables larger-scale investments with greater ecological benefits.

Coronavirus is changing the world, forever. As we prepare for a world post-pandemic, “resilience” needs to be our rallying cry. We’ll need to build new and unusual coalitions, and not only across sectors like water, public health, and environmental protection. Nature can – and must be – our partner in building a more resilient society.

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