Global green recovery: what it requires

A Global Geneva Special Report for subscribers to our free email newsletter (2000 words).

For World Environment Day 2020 (5 June), ClimateAction organized a webinar on nature-based recovery as a path to a global green recovery. Activists, administrators and entrepreneurs came together to explain what we need to do. Peter Hulm reports on what they said. You can watch the hour-long session on your own if you prefer. (LINK).

The panel: Cecilia McAleavey, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, María Mendiluce, Tim Christophersen, and Mark Gough


What do you want first? The good news or the bad? Let's at least start happy.


"In the midst of this pandemic the European Commission launched its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy aiming to protect 30% of the land [and] 30% of the sea area."

"The Farm to Fork Strategy [approved at the same time] will reduce pesticides by 50%, lift organic farming by 25%."

That from Tim Christophersen, Head of Nature for Climate Branch at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and in Nairobi.

"We have a growth rate of 100%. This is unheard of in the food industry. Normally the organic is just a couple of % on average."Cecilia McAleavey, Director of Sustainable Eating & Public Affairs at Oatly, Sweden, a plant-based food producer and sponsor of the seminar.

She went even further:

People are changing their diets for the planet

"For the first time we see people want to change their diet to save the planet — not for their health but for the planet."

Since she joined the company four years ago Oatly's employees have grown from 80 to 550 and revenues have multiplied tenfold.

Carrot or stick? You can have both

Former Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Global Climate and Energy Lead for WWF (World Wildlife Fund) since 2016 and a driving force behind the Paris Climate Change Convention, sees economic incentives and regulatory action as complementary rather than as opposites.

[Carbon] "offsets are a nature-based solution," he argued. "You can have the two approaches."

María Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition of seven international business associations linking over 1200 companies, declared: "There is lots of investment waiting. This is a great opportunity for promoters."

Now the bad news

"There are no credible projects," Ms Mendiluce added (video at around 44min:30). "Why don't we put the policies in place so that the investment community can invest?"

Tim Christophersen pointed out (video starts at 6:15); "Going back to normal, that is not good enough. Normal was also a crisis."

For example, "biodiversity loss causes an annual 10% loss in the GDP. Even before COVID-19 800m people were malnourished in the world and that figure was going up for the first time in a decade. 3.2 bn people were already negatively affected by land degradation and drought."

His mantra: "We must build back better for a world that is more clean, more green and more equal."

But he warned: "After the 2008 economic crisis, the rate of emissions tripled in the year after, to 6%. In this crisis today we have to do better."

But what are nature-based solutions?

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (video starting around 14min) complained that even the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity (and biodiversity was the theme of the 2020 World Environment Day) did not embrace "nature-based solutions" in its text, preferring something it calls the "ecosystem-based approach".

At the same time, he admitted: "What does it mean, nature-based solutions? We need clear principles for the recovery." He urged the international community to be "well-aligned around a common concept".

Which was very much what María Mendiluce was arguing, with the additional point that incentives and regulations must be credible to business. She urged the environmental community to take a "much more pragmatic approach. We just don't have time to discuss the ideological aspects."

We cannot wait for the perfect formula

Cecilia McAleavey agreed: "We cannot wait for the perfect solution in order to move ahead."

Tim Christopherson pointed out the challenge: "The food industry is a $1.7 trillion business. Cecilia, it will probably take a long time until companies like yours are at a big player level and we have to make sure that that entire industry makes the shift."

Nevertheless, he had some indicators of how things could change.

The train is leaving, get on it

"Last year UNEP launched [the AGRI3] fund with the Dutch Rabobank and the Dutch government [giving $40 each] for $1 billion to help farmers in developing countries who want to make the transition [to sustainable agriculture and forestry]," he noted.

"We show to the rest of the industry that there is a train that is leaving the station and you'd better be on it."

He saw two imperatives in such initiatives: "We have to be not only strategic in where we make these investments but then also ensure they are well communicated and followed over time by [regulatory] guidance that makes this the norm. And that is starting to happen."

Locked into bad policies

The OECD countries have been putting $705 billion into agricultural subsidies, mostly for food security. But many of [these policies] are "locking us into the current way of doing business which is bad for biodiversity, bad for nutrition, bad for people's health. So there's a huge opportunity for reform."

UNEP and the United Nations Development Programme are due to produce a report this year on agri-policy fiscal reform in the context of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It will look not only at agri subsidies but also fossil fuel subsidies and how they could be repurposed for investments in nature and in restoration.

At the UN level, countries are now moving from GDP assessments of prosperity to a System of Environmental Economic Accounts (UNSEEA). Moderator Mark Gough, CEO of the Capitals Coalition, linking 20,000 organizations around the world, noted that over 100 governments have committed to making the change. This would improve their analytical power "over time", Christophersen commented, silently underlining the slow progress. The current website and its PDFs (see link below) have no full reports from any country and its statistics date back to 2017

ESG, the new rule for responsible firms

The CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition reminded the webinar that the World Economic Forum's International Business Council had unveiled a project for companies to include environment, social and governance (ESG) factors in their annual reports (see below). Other panellists pointed to the SOS 1.5 project of the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to reduce company emissions to help climate control.

Christophersen underlined out that nature-based solutions could provided up to one-third of the needed climate mitigation, while one-third of the world's biggest 105 cities depend on water from protected areas.

The EU's new Biodiversity Strategy particularly impressed him: "What is quite unique in this is that the strategy will look at the deforestation footprint of the EU through imports, and this of course includes the imports of beef and other major deforestation commodities. This makes me quite hopeful."

He was also encouraged to see the German government decide against providing incentives for the country's "fossil cars" in deciding a post-COVID stimulus.

The money is there

But his strongest argument was that "the money is clearly there." Investment in nature and restoration would require only 0.01% of the expected global GDP over the next 10 years. And "for each dollar invested we can generate more than $9 in return".

María Mendiluce recalled that the Swiss-based multinational Nestlé has the goal of being NetZero in carbon emissions by 2050. And this went beyond looking at their own production. "They are looking not just at their supply chain but also in the ecosystems where they operate."

Mark Gough commented: "Mostly it's common sense" but "what we are not seeing is this becoming mainstream."

Stuck with anti-plant farm systems

Cecilia McAleavey told the webinar of some of the problems her company faced in dealing with traditional approaches to incentives and environmental regulation, even in Sweden and the EU.

A pilot project in a small Swedish farm to transition out of 90% animal-based farming increased its plant production by 16%. One result was that it was able to triple the number of people it could feed as well as more than halve its emission of greenhouse gases. Its land use also was much more efficient.

But subsidies and taxes still favour animal husbandry. When the company tried to explore this further abroad in the EU, 100 farmers got in touch and said they were interested in making the transition. But they did not know how because the policy framework did not support it.

Strategy must be an evolving process

María Mendiluce urged governments to encourage intensified research and innovation in addition to natural climate solutions if countries are to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% in the coming decade.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal said one of the principles for introducing nature-based solutions to the economic challenges had to be "recognize we are in an evolving process". Cecilia McAleavey acknowledged: "We do [make] lots of mistakes, obviously."

Panellists 70% hopeful

But when Mark Gough asked his panel to score out of 10 their expectations that nature-based solutions would be acknowledged parts of the post-COVID recovery programmes, all four put the chances at 7.

"This is like Strictly Come Dancing," he commented in a reference to the television show with a panel of tough judges. But he suggested: "We are all going to be working towards a nine."

And Tim Christophersen observed that a survey of companies showed only about one-third were reconsidering their plans for nature-based solutions because of the current crisis. One third have even increased their focus on the possibilities.

Stand your ground for a paradigm shift

Cecilia McAleavey acknowledged some people hate her company while others support it.

"We are in a paradigm shift. That is what causes the difficulty. [But] it really creates opportunities for us." Her conclusion: "You need to dare to stand your ground [...] instead of wanting to please everybody."

"We have to make sure we channel this energy [from consumers} into the right direction," said Tim Christophersen. "This is the step-change we need."

Products should indicate their carbon footprint

The Swedish entrepreneur urged authorities to force companies to indicate the climate footprint of their product, as Oatly does. "What does this cardigan cost? What does the computer cost? What does the food cost? Everyone can understand 0.5 compared to 20," she said.

The next webinar took place on 10 June: "How is COVID-19 refocusing sustainable finance?" (LINK)

Explore the topic further

'We Need Radically Different Accountancy to Value Companies in a Post-Pandemic World', 29 May 2020 (LINK)

European Union's new Biodiversity Strategy, 21 May 2020 (LINK)

The TED Interview: Kate Raworth argues that rethinking economics can save our planet, November 2019 (LINK)


World Business Council for Sustainable Development: SOS1.5 (LINK)

AccountancyAge: From tyranny to salvation: the credibility of common metrics for ESG reporting: At Davos 2020, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) International Business Council (IBC), in a largely glowing blaze of publicity, issued a consultation draft proposal outlining a set of common environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics for inclusion in mainstream company annual reporting. (LINK)

UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting: Latest statistics are from 2017 (LINK)

Back to top # Previous Page