Hello and welcome to The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Archives Geneva dedicated to conversations on multilateralism. This is, ‘It Takes a Global Crisis’, a series of four special episodes in collaboration with the SDG Lab at UN Geneva
Hi, I'm Edward Mishaud from the SDG Lab.
And we're Tiffany Verga,
And Natalie Alexander from the Library and Archives.
Together, we'll explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways set in motion sustainable development solutions, things that were often talked about but rarely implemented before the crisis. We'll also consider the challenges, the gaps, and the limitations of progress that the pandemic has highlighted.
We'll be talking to a range of experts and practitioners as they work both on the ground and in advancing policy on their experiences across the themes of digitalization and connectivity. The environment as a key to resilience, sustainable cities and social protection.
So, did it take a global crisis? Let's find out.
Hello everyone, my name is Edward Mishaud and welcome to the second episode in this new podcast miniseries between the SDG Lab where I work and the UN Library and Archives Geneva. We are releasing episodes once per month and you can listen back to our first one on digitalization and connectivity. Now today, as part of our journey to see how the global crisis has impacted the SDG's, we're going to take on one key topic in this question, and that's the link between the well-being of nature, of our planet, and the well-being of us as human beings and our societies. This connection between nature, the environment and our own health has been known, discussed and analyzed for quite some time, but arguably it feels that since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become a topic of truly widespread public attention and importance. That's Akanksha Khatri, our first guest and the head of the Nature Action agenda for the World Economic Forum's Platform for global public goods. And that's David Smith. He is the chief economist and regional coordinator of the Poverty-Environment Action for Sustainable Development Goals project. That's a joint initiative of the UN development Programme and UN Environment. David is connecting from Nairobi, Kenya. So what are we taking away from COVID-19 in this regard? What can governments and businesses and communities do to harness nature-based solutions and environmental sustainability? And what are the lessons and good practices that have emerged since the start of the pandemic to make us more resilient going forward? So a lot of questions, but I have two experts with me to help bring some light on this complex yet crucial topic. So without further ado, let's begin.
Akanksha, I'm going to start with you. How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the thinking about natural capital and the value of nature and biodiversity?
Thank you Edward for having me. It's a shame that it actually took us a pandemic to get to this point where we do realize that there is a concept called “nature sparing” and “nature sharing”. If we as humanity continue to keep expanding on this planet without any regard for the needs of other species, we do so at our own peril, which means that during the pandemic that we saw, there is a big push of what we are doing collectively to the rest of the species, and that has a risk to us directly. This is clear with COVID-19. The COVID-19 has now shifted our thinking on natural capital, both in terms of the stock as well as flows, so anyone who's done Economics101 would know that any capital can be looked at as stock, which is what stays in your warehouse as well as your services, which is what you produce and give to the consumers. Similarly when we look at nature as stocks of rainforest, as stocks of resilient oceans, as critical as our services of pollination, just in the period of 2020 to 2021 alone, we have a risk of $10.1 trillion of economy which has been forgone because of the pandemic. So now more than ever, the world is realizing that there can be no resilient economy if we do not have a resilient natural capital.
OK, thank you Akanksha. David, how has this pandemic affected the perception of the links between human prosperity and well-being? And that of our planet's natural resources?
First of all, thank you very much for this invitation. It's a real pleasure to be here, even if it's virtually, I think that the pandemic has strengthened our perception of the links between human prosperity and well-being and planet's natural resources. In this particular case, the pandemic has really highlighted how we degrade or destroy natural habitats. We increase the risks of zoonotic diseases caused by germs or viruses that move from animals to people. So it's highlighted our vulnerability in a way that more, shall we say, slow burning issues like climate change have not done because the impacts increase more slowly, not as many people are directly affected. In summary, then I think it has really significantly increased the understanding of how our human prosperity and well-being is linked to our planet's natural resources.
And just maybe David a follow-up question on that. From your experience, have there been any other more recent crises or situations that maybe have brought that perception forward. You refer to climate as kind of a slow burning issue, but why do you think we're seeing this different perception now with an issue like COVID 19?
Good question. We do see geographically specific shock like terrible floods in Mozambique and Malawi for example, which are exacerbated by climate change. But they're geographically specific. And to be blunt, for people in developing countries, what the pandemic has done is heightened around the whole world that human beings can be in our times most vulnerable to using natural resources in an unsustainable manner. If you reflect on that from one geographical place, this pandemic has spread to every country in the world practically and it's brought it home in a sudden and many cases dreadful manner.
Akanksha I'm going to come back to you, just referencing now the word that David used around vulnerabilities. What do you see as the top risk for economies and societies from nature loss and our impact that we're having on the natural world?
I'd like to pick up with the example of the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report, which is one of our flagship publications and has been for more than last decade. Every year in the last five years, the risks and perception of risk amongst more than 1000 business leaders has been rising when it comes to climate action failure and biodiversity loss, which means that our economic resilience is directly connected to the health of this planet. We also released a report on the back of the risk report last year, which identified that more than half the world GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. So the question no longer is whether the planet and the health of the planet is relevant for the economy and our society or not. I think what we need to recognize that the human activity, the human drivers are pushing us into what the scientists are calling the Anthropocene world, where the impact that we have on the rest of the planet is higher than what the planet's biophysical limits and processes are. So it is time now for us to take responsibility for our actions and recognize that we live on a planet which does not have infinite resources, as we have always assumed it to be.
David, I think that's a good segue to you on my next question, because how do we ultimately balance the sustainable management of natural capital and the obvious significant economic benefits to people who depend on nature for their livelihood?
This is a very good question. It is true that in some cases at least, there's a perception that it is impossible to, or very difficult to strike a balance between sustainable management of natural capital and to ensure the wellbeing of people who depend on nature for their livelihoods. For example, we see the issue over access to forests that if we lock forest up, local people suffer. However, in most cases in our experience in Africa, it is possible to achieve a balance between sustainable management and the socio-economic benefits of people who depend on the nature. So the first step to do this is to ensure that indeed we do focus on sustainable management. That's a key step to achieving this balance, and unfortunately in many many cases we don't have sustainable management. Forests are cut down beyond sustainable yields, overfishing, soil erosion. What this means is that the social and economic benefits from these natural resources are declining over time. Sustainable management ensures that if it's implemented properly, a sustainable flow of socioeconomics benefits from natural resources to people. That's in the countries we work in. In some of the countries with over population, population growth is a challenge, but almost all cases in the countries we work in Africa, our analysis shows that achieving sustainable management would over time, increase the flow of socio-economic benefits for people. For example, we carried out work in Malawi that showed how soil erosion, which reduces agricultural productivity over a 10-year period from 2005 to 2015, kept nearly 2 million people in poverty compared with reducing soil erosion would maintain or improve agricultural productivity. In a country like Malawi where people are so dependent on the soil and forests and fisheries for their natural resources, if we actually manage them sustainably, they will be better off. Poverty will be reduced provided there is proper capacity building policies and equitable benefit sharing.
One of the key issues is that these days, there is a lot of economic evidence of how we can improve people’s livelihood and I don't mean traditional market based economic analysis. I mean economic analysis that incorporates the impacts of unsustainable management, that incorporates the impacts on poor people, on women. We need disaggregated economic analysis to provide the evidence that demonstrates investing and sustainability will actually help achieve key development goals such as food security and poverty reduction. And one of the key things we've discovered is that because most of the smallholder farmers in Africa are woman, for example, if you do not focus on gender elements of natural resource use, you are most unlikely to achieve sustainable management. If 70% of smallholder farmers in Africa are woman and your agricultural extension services do not specifically focus on helping empowering women, you're not going to achieve sustainable management, the economic benefits needed to reduce food secure. A concrete example, if you invest in supplying clean water, girl children spend hours a day, save hours a day which they can then go to school. We carried out a cost-benefit analysis in Rwanda on a government donor investment in a green village and we found that on average families were spending over 2 hours a day collecting water. When the government built a school near this village and we the UN and donors provided rainwater harvesting, then the children, especially the girl children, can now walk 5 minutes down the hill to a school and in 20 years that will produce significant benefits to the country. So it can be done and we have many examples of how to do it, but we in the UN we don't have the resources and the funds to finance all this and this is where we as the UN I think we have to spend more time working with development partners in the context of Africa to help direct more development aid towards sustainability on the grounds that would help achieve development objectives, which also means we need to work with ministries of planning, of finance, not just ministries of environment.
Akanksha, would you like to come in on any point that David mentioned there? I saw you were taking some notes. Would you like to comment on anything that he raised?
Sure. Actually there's one thing that I'd like to pick up on what David was saying, which is quite fascinating. I agree with almost everything that he said, but just maybe taking it one step forward to the point that David was mentioning about bringing in a bit more aid on the ground for the projects, particularly in Africa. I would argue that, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the budgets for all countries are extremely tight and there is a massive fiscal stress in both developing and developed countries, which means that we cannot rely on donor money or aid money alone. We need to come up with new financing mechanisms. So if I think about Africa, there is huge initiative on the great Green Wall in Sahel which is trying to bring of course the public sector money, multilateral development, banks money, but also from the private sector. We need to be a bit more open to blended finance models, and opportunities for public private finance. So that's really more on the place-based interventions.
Then the second thing is broadly thinking about the critical ecosystems that need to be protected on the planet. How do we make sure that within those critical ecosystems we are both empowering the traditionally marginalized people? So of course David mentioned about women and children, but then I also want to raise the point regarding the indigenous people. So indigenous people are less than 5% of the world population but are stewards for over 80% of the world's biodiversity. So how do we as a global community, as people in influence and decision-making positions, ensure that they are rightfully remunerated for and recognized for the service that they are doing for the global public good?
I think there are a number of follow up questions there that I'd like to take on if we have time, but I'll stay with you Akanksha because I think as David also mentioned and you mentioned as well about budgetary fiscal stress in terms of the current situation, we are in globally, and that's for developed and developing countries alike. So private sector is an important partner, and if I look in terms of where you work, the World Economic Forum. The WEF works with numerous private sector companies from all sectors. From your perspective I mean what should the private sector do better and more of to ensure investment and business decisions balance the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development?
Absolutely, so I would just pick up actually the piece that David was talking about and try to expand it a little bit. He obviously gave a really compelling argument on the sustainable management of resources but if we just look at planet as one resource spot for us we have to obviously look at what percentage of those resources need to be protected/conserved? What percentage of those resources need to be restored and what percentage of those resources need to be sustainably managed? Next year in April 194+ countries and parties will be meeting for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and one of the targets that they are talking about is for conserving 30% of the planet by 2030. I believe, and the World Economic Forum believes that the private sector has an important role to play across the value chain, so both in terms of protection, restoration and sustainable management of resources. The way to do it is in a couple of ways.
First every business, irrespective of the sector that it is playing in, needs to identify what are their impacts and the dependencies that its business has across the value chain on nature and its services.
Second, once you have assessed and done the impact assessment for your operations, try to set policies that actually value natural capital in the same way that we value produced capital, human capital and financial capital. It's not a concept that I or the forum have come up with. It's actually from Professor Partha Dasgupta, who released this as part of the Economics of Biodiversity Review, which was commissioned by the UK Treasury. I think what we need is for the businesses to start valuing natural capital, but it will only be able to do so if the governments and the policy and the regulatory environment almost starts demanding them to do so. So there is the role over there of a public private dialogue. Taking a step back, what do we want as a society? So what gets measured, gets valued and gets conserved? So let us make sure that we are putting the right rules of the game in place, so that the private sector has to do this materiality assessment, has to find out what the impact and dependency is on nature, and then actually start reporting on it.
So two initiatives that I would like to put out there for the listeners is: one, which was launched most recently this year, is on the task force for nature related financial disclosures. That has suddenly changed the game for all financial services and investors because they are now wanting their investments to be looking at what is the dependency and impact on nature. So that's one which is really on disclosure. Then the second is science-based targets for nature. So there is a group, a conglomerate of all the leading scientists as well as leading NGOs of the world, which are saying that if we look at nature, which goes beyond climate, which goes beyond greenhouse gas emissions, how do we set up science-based targets for the private sector? Because when it comes to climate and carbon, each one of them is on a 1.5 degree pathway or what everyone is calling “race to 0”. I don't have something similar for land and water and oceans and biodiversity, and that's the kind of signaling that we need for the private sector, both from the scientists but also from governments.
This dialogue you mentioned is public-private dialogue. Do you think this happening equally around the world, or are we seeing certain regions where the dialogue between the public sector and the private sector is more advanced? Or is this kind of a universal dialogue that you're seeing taking place?
So I do want to humbly accept that it's possible. I'm not seeing everything there is to see, but from my vantage point, I definitely see that it is not as much of a priority or is not happening at the same level of urgency across the world. I see there's a huge amount of work that the EU Commission is leading on as part of their Green Deal initiative, and for anyone who's more familiar with the technical side of this work, EU is looking to come out with its taxonomy of what is considered to be a sustainable investment to avoid greenwashing. That's the other thing that we need to set the bar really high for citizens, for private sector, that we avoid the risk of losing trust because of greenwashing. So I'm definitely seeing some activity with the EU taxonomy coming up. There's also some work which is happening with the carbon markets, so countries where the carbon markets have actually worked well are Costa Rica, Colombia, Singapore has recently launched its carbon exchange. China has launched its carbon exchange. So the question then is you do have national level carbon exchanges, but then carbon and stable climate is a global public good. So will our global governance institutions be able to come up with a framework that everybody can align on? And have a fair, shared but differentiated responsibility in there.
David, would you like to come in on any point that Akanksha mentioned before I come to you for potentially the last question?
Yeah, I agree that we can't rely on development aid, especially for schools in fiscal constrained times. One of the issues though is that whatever development aid there is, my viewing experience, and countries like Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda should be re-prioritized towards sustainability, like when we have tens of millions of dollars in one country, development aid going to the agriculture sector which subsidies and encourages unsustainable land use. That's an example of the need to reprioritize existing on even fewer funds. One of the difficulties engaging in the private sector we find is most of the countries we work in, the biggest private sector group we work with, and the smallholder farmers, there's a lack of effective cooperatives and systems for engaging with them. And because they're so poor and risk-averse, what we call private discount rates can be as high as 50%, whereas the national discount rate for development maybe only 3% or 4%. So there's a huge disparity between investment incentives between poor local people and what would contribute positively to the country's development. And it's quite a struggle to deal with some of these issues in terms of encouraging like millions of smallholder farmers to plant trees or build terraces that would reduce soil erosion.
Akanksha, if we look to the example that David just mentioned, how can the private sector be incentivized to help overcome some of these barriers and these challenges that David mentioned?
I absolutely want to second the point that David made first about policy coherence. We cannot, at a national level, have a Ministry of Environment trying to conserve trees while you have a Ministry of Agriculture actually, funding harmful practices that lead to soil erosion and soil degradation, so that's a critical piece. And in this again, private sector has a role to play. Private sector has an important voice when it comes to advocacy and sometimes when it's not done well, that's what we hear about lobbying. But imagine if we could get private sector as well as associations to actually lobby for nature instead of lobbying to harm nature. That's just like a utopian view of the world.
But then the second thing that he's talking about as well is what about the cost of capital for those individual transactions? Because it's absolutely true that when it comes to both the aid agencies but also private sector, the individual ticket size of the transaction matters a lot, and therefore a lot of smallholder farmers as well as entrepreneurs actually miss out on the innovation because the ticket size that they are seeking would be actually less than $1000 annually sometimes, and the private sector would not want to enter those markets for anything less than 1.5 million. So there is some sort of an innovation which is needed when it comes to aggregation of the demand for sustainable things, and that's where I really feel that we need blended capital models. We need governments to step into underwrite the risk capital for private sector, and then we need private sector to come in with some innovation or financing mechanisms. It is doable, but yes, I think we cannot be naive about it, that we cannot change these business models, particularly in agriculture that have now existed for about 50 to 80 years in most countries which have prioritized investing more through agricultural [23.47] inputs rather than regenerative practices, so that needs to be flipped and the question is who's going to pay for the transition?
It's a good question exactly. My last question goes to you, David. Based on the experiences garnered through the Poverty-Environment Action for SDG’s project, what can individuals do to accelerate poverty eradication and environmental protection efforts in their own communities?
OK, good question again. The circumstances differ quite a lot across different countries in terms of what individuals can do for various reasons, so I'll give the general type of view with some examples. Speaking all again from Africa, all the countries we work in have forms of development planning and implementation that go down districts and sub district level. In theory there are mechanisms for individuals to participate in those development planning processes, like the chief will hold consultations where district officers are present to help draft the plans, to help implement them. But these systems don't work that well in some cases, and thus the abilities of individuals, particularly women, to actually accelerate eradication and environmental sustainability in their own communities are highly variable. What we urge and the UN attempts to do, is to make sure we involve people in a disaggregated manner in the projects and processes that we support for development and environmental sustainability, for example, holding discussions and capacity building sessions for women to encourage them to participate in these processes to speak their voice, to try and use tactful levels of conditionalities that will enable individuals to participate on their own right. In some countries the government and the officials proactively encourage individual involvement, and we as the UN can be there to support that. In other countries there is a real challenge where we've been, as UN have been criticized for focusing on wanting to empower women farmers. In one workshop we were accused of hating men. So against this cultural background, it can be quite a challenge for individuals to speak their voice by themselves unless that there are systems in place that can give woman a voice, that can give indigenous people advice, that gives the extreme poor, whether they are male or female, a voice. What we do is encourage people to participate in these processes, development planning and environmental planning processes. On paper they are actually quite inclusive but often it's on paper. To give you a concrete example that I actually find a bit upsetting. We were in one country and I noticed that there were so many cattle, but the land is really degraded, and we did household surveys and found in particular amongst the extremely poor households often women run, food and security was a major problem. One of the issues was that the woman wanted to plant more crops, which would be more effective at addressing food and security, then these skinny cattle who are just degrading the land, eating the crop residues which could have been used to fertilize the crop growing areas. But the men wouldn't listen, and my government colleagues in this country were also quite upset about this. We went to some meetings to discuss this with local people in charge, chiefs and all that who are all men, of course. These women just didn't speak up in the meeting. I haven't answered your question as well as you'd like probably, but your question is highlighted. It's a real problem because people aren't dumb. They know that soil erosion is reducing productivity. They know that cattle defecating and the water supply is making their kids sick, but they are not able to participate adequately in the forums that would enable them to change this. I think the key role for us and the countries that the UN worked in Africa is to really focus on trying to empower individuals. They can speak up and therefore bring about practical changes and projects that will help reduce their poverty in a multidimensional sense and also improve environmental sustainability.
Akanksha I want to just come back to you because David mentioned the word “forum” and I think it's an important point. I'd just like to hear from you. The World Economic Forum has a very specific audience and a very specific mandate. How can we also help from your perspective, from that of WEF to help empower and to elevate some of these voices that David mentioned that are there, but may not be coming up through the various layers and the structural barriers that exist in many countries around the world?
That's a really good important question, and just so many points that David was mentioning made me really think. Couple of ideas just from my side if I may put them forward. One is when people think about the World Economic Forum, the image that comes to mind is the annual meeting in Davos. People, like heads of state and governments, CEOs of multinational companies going up on stage and making commitments, making big statements. But the World Economic Forum also has offices across the world as well as networks across the world through which we operate. One of our latest platform initiatives is called “the UpLink”. What UpLink is trying to do is to really bring more bottom-up solutions to the problems under the umbrella of the Sustainable development goals. Two examples that I want to put forward is looking at the topic of restoration with the initiative of the trillion trees or 1t.org, which the World Economic Forum holds. We launched an UpLink challenge, inviting what we call Eco-preneurs, so ecological entrepreneurs from across the world, to put forward ideas on restorations which could be in an urban setting, a rural setting, or a peri-urban setting. And through that they have an opportunity both to engage with the vast network that the World Economic Forum provides, but also exchange with each other, some of the best practices and learnings that they may have. So yes, absolutely, there is a certain network or a cachet that the World Economic Forum provides. But what we do through initiatives like the UpLink platform is to open up that network to people who are truly the change makers on the ground. So yes, there is a global CEO, but then you also have somebody who's working on the ground with less than $5000 a year.
OK, so I'm conscious of time and I also want to bring us back a bit to where we started and it grounded our conversation in the COVID-19 pandemic and also the crisis that we've been seeing unfold around the world. So before I let you go, in the spirit of this podcast we've been asking our guests to wrap up by ending this sentence. “It took a crisis to...”
It took a crisis to realize that human health and planetary health are intricately linked with each other.
It took a crisis to highlight the importance of empathetic and decisive leadership.
Well, on that note, I want to thank you and Akanksha Khatri of the World Economic Forum, and David Smith of the Poverty-Environment Action for Sustainable Development Goals, a joint initiative of UNDP and UN Environment for both of you for sharing your time, your expertise, the examples and the great insights that you provided to us today on this topic, where I think we could have easily continued on at least another four or five different tangents, but I think we touched upon some of the core issues that are at the heart of debate. I thank you once again.
Thank you so much, Edward. I think it was not an easy one to moderate, but thanks for your expert maneuvering.
Yeah, it was extremely interesting and I very much appreciate the opportunity to participate. Thank you.
It takes a global crisis is produced by the UN Library and Archives Geneva and the SDG lab.
The production team is Edward Mishaud, Marlene Borlant, Evgeniya Altukhova, Tiffany Verga and Natalie Alexnder.
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Thanks for listening.
Bye for now.