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  • Edward Owen-Burge

Tim Christophersen: We need the imagination to see that a different world is possible


Former head of the UN Environment Programme’s Nature for Climate branch, Tim Christophersen on resetting our relationship with nature, having the humility to confront our mistakes and the imagination to see that a different world is possible.




In 2019, the world received two major scientific reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the biodiversity equivalent, IPBES. They were both wake-up calls that showed the planet’s boundaries. Both biodiversity as a boundary and climate change as a boundary that will impact how humans can live on Earth.

According to those reports, we are already losing about 10% of our global economic output due to biodiversity loss. This means that biodiversity loss has a much more significant impact on the economy than Covid-19. It’s just happening relatively gradually and hidden because those costs are not truly accounted for.


It’s the same with climate change. The cost already causing, and will cause, is much more significant in terms of human lives and economic damage than the current pandemic. But because it is always seeming to be around the corner, we have put climate change mitigation off. That has to stop.


So clearly things like having a UN-wide agreement of all countries on Earth – or all UN member states – to call out a UN decade on ecosystem restoration, to call out a UN decade on action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is vital. They all point to the same fact: this is the decade; it’s now or never. We have to repair some of the damage we’ve done and find our way back to a sustainable pathway.


The biggest challenge we face right now is mostly a challenge of imagination.

There is good news in terms of both public and private investments in nature. But I think the biggest challenge we face right now is mostly a challenge of imagination. The human mind works in fabulous ways and can think and talk things into existence. In particular, social constructs like the economy. The economy is a social construct based on what people agree is important and what is fair. But the economy needs a rethink.

The current pandemic is a great opportunity to come back better and have a green recovery that is good for people, nature and the climate. And it’s entirely possible and entirely up to us, but we need the imagination to see that a different world is possible.


So, in essence, the SDGs are a kind of blueprint. I wish they were a bit less technical and perhaps told in the form of stories but they are very good in terms of what they say and the picture of the future we want.


Imagining that a different world is possible is dearly lacking. We have to share both positive stories of what change is already happening and what is possible and positive stories of where we want to go.


What is the narrative of the future of humans on this planet? One story is of runaway climate change that will lock us for thousands of years into an ever-degrading planet, spiralling biodiversity loss that could quickly get out of control. Or there’s a picture where we take the past few climate shocks we’ve seen, like this pandemic, as the warning signs that they are and say right now is the time to do things differently.


And doing things differently does include resetting our relationship with nature. We have shifted as humankind – as human civilisation – from being a part of our natural world to viewing nature as the enemy. It was once the frontier, when you had to clear forests to create agricultural land for thousands of years. But now we’ve come to a stage where we are more indifferent than anything else. Nature is just there; it’s something we control, dominate, and sometimes protect, but it’s sort of there even if it provides us with everything we need for free.


We have to create a new relationship with nature where we understand whether we like it or not; whether we think it or not, we are part of nature. And if we undermine nature too much, we will come crashing down. This is not about the planet. The planet will be fine. It’s survived five mass extinctions. But we might not be fine and we have to come to a positive relationship with nature where we nurture nature and nature provides for us.


The first step to that is a new humility. And the kick in the shins that we’ve just received from nature is maybe the starting point for that new humility. We still don’t understand so many things about nature and biodiversity and how it works. Taking a wrecking ball to the world’s web of life is foolish, and we need the humility to recognise it.


And the second step is the imagination we need to rebuild a positive relationship with nature and restoration of ecosystems. This UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration can do that. It’s part of a strategy we have designed for the decade and the movement that we want to build around that vision.


I’ve had a fascinating six months as we drafted the strategy for the UN Decade. We’ve received about 2,000 comments on the draft strategy since we put it online in February. And the picture that emerges is that restoration is starting to happen everywhere. So many initiatives – from primary schools to municipalities, cities, local governments, national governments, heads of state – recognise we need to restore nature.


So, we are in a fantastic position right now to be able to collect all this information. Hopefully, we’ll be making that available soon on a digital hub that everyone can link into, share their knowledge, find projects, find funding and invest in projects on restoration. So, there are positive examples everywhere.


It has to be the right tree in the right place, with benefits for the local communities.

In Ethiopia, where they had mass tree planting, they’re starting to learn their lessons that it’s more than just about sticking trees in the ground. We must grow and nurture trees; it has to be the right tree in the right place, benefiting the local communities. But these things can be learnt. What’s important is that the political will is there. And you have somebody like the [Ethiopian] Prime Minister willing to step up, even willing to admit that the first time when they broke the world record on tree planting, many of them died afterwards, so they have to adjust their approach.


But the technical challenges can be overcome if the political will is there. We see that political will emerging, and it’s the priority of the strategy for the UN decade, that we need more of it. We also see it emerging in the EU, with the new biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies and the ambitious restoration plan for the EU that they want to draw up. We see it in communities and municipalities along the Great Green Wall for Africa. These eleven countries immediately south of the Sahara are re-greening and rebuilding their economies based on nature and natural climate solutions.


Anyone can help. First, we need to build political momentum. Pick up your phone, call your local congressman, member of parliament, or mayor – make them aware of the need to reset our relationship with nature and restore nature. Secondly, look immediately around you – in your community and garden if you want to start there if you have one. But even if you live in a city, find out where your green spaces are, where your clean drinking water comes from, and where your fresh produce comes from. Explore what the ecosystems are around your city, and think about how you can be a part of restoring those. And the last one, check out the Trillion Tree Campaign, where you can look up any number of volunteer and community projects around the world and make a donation.


For more information on the UN Decade on Restoration, click here.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 12th June 2020

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