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New paper urges shift to ‘nature positivity’ to restore Earth

Coastline south of Milolii in Hawaii. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • A new paper, published by leading conservationists and the heads of various global institutions, argues for adopting a “nature-positive” goal.
  • This would require restoring the Earth from 2020, placing the world on a nature positive path by 2030 to mount a full recovery by 2050.
  • According to the authors, nature positivity would provide an overarching goal for nature that would coincide with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) mission and streamline agreements for climate, biodiversity, and sustainable development into one common vision.
  • The paper was released a few days before the start of the meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), where parties will provide advice on the CBD’s post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

The world is brimming with bad news about people failing to take care of the Earth. But there is a way to change the narrative, says Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke. The key, according to him, is to strive for a “nature positive” world that is less about destruction and more about restoration.

“We know we’re on a rocket sled into the abyss, and we need to turn that around 100%, going the other direction on a rocket sled towards a positive solution,” Locke told Mongabay in an interview. “Tinkering is not possible. We can’t just [take] an old crystal radio set where you just kind of turn the dial a little bit [to] move from one station to another. It won’t work. We need to be on the internet, instead of listening to the radio — that kind of level of change.”

Locke is the lead author of a new paper published April 30, a few days before the start of a six-week virtual meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), an intergovernmental scientific advisory body to the parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At this meeting, the SBSTTA will provide advice on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, Guido Broekhoven, head of policy research and development at WWF, told Mongabay in an interview.

Zebras. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“What’s being discussed and recommended in the meetings over the coming six weeks will be incredibly important as a signal of the level of ambition [and] the extent to which the framework will become comprehensive,” said Broekhoven, who was not involved in the study.

The paper, which is co-authored by the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Johan Rockström and the CEOs and heads of various global institutions, argues that the adaption of nature positivity would provide a succinct objective for nature that coincides with the CBD’s mission of living in harmony with nature. It would also connect and streamline global agreements that address biodiversity, climate and sustainable development.

“We have a very clear goal for the climate — it’s called carbon neutrality, or net-zero carbon, which is the tool to get us to a 1.5-degree world if we really focus on it,” Locke said. “We have the Sustainable Development Goals to address human equity. But we’ve never rolled up the needs of nature into one simple idea that people can get behind across the whole world. And that’s what this idea of a ‘nature positive’ global goal for nature is about.”

The paper presents three objectives to attain a nature-positive world: working to restore nature from 2020; placing the world on a nature-positive path by 2030 (measuring from a baseline of 2020); and mounting a full recovery by 2050. The authors acknowledge that “some loss or degradation of nature in the near term is an inevitable result of humanity’s ongoing demand for food, energy, materials, transport and differing stages of development,” but say that society must urgently take steps to succeed at nature positivity by 2030.

The trajectory of the proposed “nature-positive” goal by 2030. It would require restoration from 2020, although it recognizes that some ongoing loss is unavoidable. By 2030, there should be an improvement to a nature-positive condition (from a 2020 baseline) and a full recovery by 2050, according to the study. Image by Locke et al. (2021).

“There are about a million species that are threatened with extinction,” Broekhoven said. “Well, if we want to change that course of action, then we need to really have that ambition of being nature positive by 2030. And that is also putting us on that pathway of something [on which] almost everybody agrees, [which] is this living in harmony with nature by 2050.”

Achieving a nature-positive world would encompass actions like curtailing the extinction of threatened species, working to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and water, restoring degraded landscapes, and shifting toward sustainable production and consumption patterns, according to the paper.

These actions would help create a more resilient, more stable world that is more likely to “cope with shocks and stresses without crossing destabilizing tipping points,” the authors state. As the world is now, humans have already pushed several of Earth’s system processes — known as “planetary boundaries” — beyond their safe limits, threatening to propel the planet into a new, unknown state that may not be as hospitable to humans.

“We just live on the earth, and we’re messing up our home,” Locke said. “We’ve got to shift that by being nature positive. We’ve got to shift our relationship with each other by being equitable. And we’ve got to shift our relationship with energy so that we’re carbon neutral. It’s really simple.”

According to the paper, the goal of “nature positivity” would require a conceptual shift, placing nature at the top of a hierarchical structure, with society and the economy relying on the well-being of the planet. Image by Locke et al. (2021).

A crucial adjustment that needs to take place, according to Locke, is understanding that society and the economy are entirely dependent on a healthy, functioning Earth.

“In the past, we thought that the best sustainable development idea [was] finding the sweet spot between the economy and society and the environment,” Locke said. “That’s not conceptually correct.

“The only reason you have an economy is to support human society,” he added. “The economy does not have a life on its own. It does not mean anything outside of the human context. And the human context is not possible outside the functioning of the Earth system. We have been confused about that. And we’re saying, ‘Stop the confusion, we have to save the place we live in.’”

Locke says that one of the most exciting parts of this paper is the collaboration between the heads of various global institutions, ranging from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to The Nature Conservancy to Business for Nature.

“I’m not aware of any consensus paper like this at this scale with that kind of a diversity of people with this much meat in it,” Locke said.

Red-eyed tree frog in Colombia. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Broekhoven says that achieving a nature-positive world by 2030 is not just important — it’s essential.

“It has to be done,” he says. “That’s our conviction, it has to be done. And there’s no sort of silver bullet to achieving it.”

The task may be daunting, but Broekhoven says he is encouraged by the growing interest and support from the business community to achieve nature positivity and the younger generation’s engagement with these issues.

Locke says he believes that humanity can get itself out of its current dilemma by redefining its relationship with the Earth and shifting how it interacts with the world upon which we depend.

“We have to have something to be for in the 21st century,” he said. “We have to have a dream of a fair, just, prosperous, thriving planet to get ourselves into the place we want to be.

“The job of every generation is to give hope to the next,” he added. “My generation has given despair to the next. That is a colossal failure in performance. This is about giving hope to the next.”


Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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