Costa Rica's Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, Aguirre. Luiz Cent, Unsplash

Nature not only a tool but the reason itself for addressing climate change

A Q&A with Tom Crowther at COP27 in Egypt

In past years, attention has been rapidly growing for nature’s immense power to help deal with the destructive effects humans have incurred through climate change. One of the faces of this movement is Tom Crowther, an ecologist who rose to sectoral fame for the work of the Crowther Lab, which he runs at ETH Zürich. Now, he wears many hats as the founder of digital restoration mapping platform Restor, a leader of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and biodiversity enthusiast extraordinaire.

Last year, Landscape News spoke with Crowther at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), and this year, to continue tradition, checked in with him again at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh to hear his thoughts on this year’s agenda and priority issues.

Crowther with Restor CEO Clara Rowe and Andrea Meza, former Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, at COP27. Courtesy of Crowther Lab
Crowther with Restor CEO Clara Rowe and Andrea Meza, former Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, at COP27. Courtesy of Crowther Lab

How does this year’s COP compare to last year’s?

So last year’s COP26 in Glasgow was so amazing because nature really got on the docket. I feel like this year’s COP is the one where we try to evaluate the progress – or any progress – that has been made and to consolidate some of the pledges and commitments that were made last year.

What are your goals for being here?

We’re launching a major biodiversity assessment – a globally standardized biodiversity assessment that can help people to be both economically and practically empowered by the biodiversity on which they depend. We are partnered with the Costa Rican government, who have had this incredible payment for ecosystems services (PES) program for the last 25 years.

So, we’ve done this assessment on that nation to show for the first time how the program has impacted the health and resilience of its ecosystems. It’s really just a case study for the rest of the world, as Costa Rica is such a shining example of committing to full transparency. You can see every single one of their projects – thousands of projects across the country – for free, anytime you want, on RESTOR. We need every other country to do the same thing, as once that happens, we can then find the benefits and the impact of biodiversity if it’s removed.

The social angle of COP27 is quite strong, with loss and damage and human rights high on the agenda. What does this mean for restoration and conservation?

This COP definitely has a human focus, and I honestly think that is the best feature of this COP. That is the best thing we could have hoped for in order to protect and revitalize nature on the planet. What so many studies seem to find is that when people are economically empowered by the nature on which they depend, nature thrives. So if there can be major steps toward alleviating debt in the Global South and alleviating financial pressures so that the wealth of nature can be distributed more equitably across global ecosystems, that’s the first step toward moving in the direction of an environmental movement.

Crowther in Portugal in 2020. Courtesy of Crowther Lab
Crowther in Portugal in 2020. Courtesy of Crowther Lab

At last year’s COP, you were championing the idea for biodiversity credits, which would work similarly to carbon credits.

Huge progress. A big coalition that’s present here is Nature Finance, which is essentially coordinating many of the corporate pledges around biodiversity credits to make sure that they are all founded on good scientific rules and have scientific underpinning. This gets back to why we’ve built the biodiversity index, so that everybody committing to a nature-positive world can do so in a globally standardized way, using measurements that represent the complexity of entire ecosystems. And if we can build a biodiversity index based on that, I think there’s been huge momentum toward the idea of this biodiversity market that can go along.

I do have additional fears about that. Nature provides everything we need to survive, and yet we value certain parts of it more than others. We needed food, so we get the edible parts, and we propagate them in massive farms. We needed timber, so we propagate them in massive forestry projects. We need medicines and textiles, so we make monocultures for these things. What we’re doing now because we’re now suddenly scared about climate change is that we want the carbon part of nature. So we build massive monocultures for carbon (sequestration), and it’s exactly the same thing.

I think the big danger with the biodiversity market is if we build it based on any particular part of nature, such as a certain number of species or a certain proximity to protected areas. If we make it about any such criteria, we will do the same thing. We absolutely need to focus on the ecological integrity of ecosystems across genetics, species and ecosystems. And if we can do that, I think we can then build markets that promote the complexity and health of nature, which would be awesome.

What other agenda items are you following closely?

Every year there’s talk about global equity, especially for the Global South. I think this has to be the highest priority every time. If we can alleviate the financial inequality across the planet, we will have the basis to build a world where people can share from the wealth of nature. And that will mean we use nature in a way that sustains all of us. I think the thing I want to keep repeating right now is that nature isn’t just a tool in the fight against climate change. It’s the reason we want to address it in the first place because it is the essence of all life on earth.

Article tags

biodiversityclimate changeCOP27restorationTom Crowther

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