Beyond adjusting our lives to accommodate the pandemic, COVID-19 has had the effect of putting various other global issues in sharp relief. The sudden and unexpected drop in urban traffic gave us a glimpse of what living in cities with clean air could be like. And as factories, industry and air travel ground to a halt, global emissions fell dramatically. Of course, the temporary lockdown does not yet give us the long-term behaviour change needed to meet the Paris agreement, nor did it address the massive structural adjustments needed for our clean energy transition. However, it has served as a test case demonstrating the extent to which habits and practices need to change.
Far from shunting climate change down the political agenda or from public discourse, the hiatus from normal life seems to me to have galvanised multiple sectors, including large corporations and central banks, into demanding governments adopt green recoveries. In early June, 200 leading UK businesses, investors and professional networks urged the country’s prime minster to align economic recovery with social, climate and environmental goals. Similarly, 200 doctors and medical workers signed an open letter calling on the same from all G20 leaders. How far these rallying cries go towards achieving meaningful and far-reaching policy reform remains to be seen but, perhaps second only to last year’s youth protests led by Greta Thunberg, rarely has there been such a unified voice behind action for climate.
Unfortunately, while emissions were falling globally, tropical deforestation has been quietly accelerating. WWF Germany reported that, in March alone, tropical forests around the world shrank by 6,500 square kilometres, some seven-times the size of Berlin. This comes off the back of a clear uptick in deforestation over recent years. Mongabay, reporting this June, marked the 14th consecutive month of increase Amazon deforestation and that the Brazilian Amazon is currently pacing 83 percent ahead of this time last year. A similar picture is reported for other Amazonian countries such as Colombia and Perú. This is heart-breaking but also fiercely motivating.
Aside from the very topical link we are seeing between disruption of natural ecosystems and the spread of new human diseases, devastation of tropical forests – through land conversion, forest degradation and spreading fires – is releasing huge volumes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, there is a clear and growing body of research demonstrating the tremendous carbon storage capabilities provided by natural tropical forests. This is nothing new, we know this already, but as we move through what climatologists are predicting to be the hottest year globally on record, protection of natural carbon sinks is more important than ever.
For Permian Global, the motivation from the start has simply been to protect as much tropical forest as possible. We have always supported and championed conservation and deplored the relentless encroachment into natural forests. The problem for many traditional conservation efforts, as I saw it, was that for a tropical forest country, a forest area looks far more valuable cut down and converted to farmland than it does left standing. This is as sad as it is understandable. For a government under pressure to grow its economy, especially if large parts of the population are poor, the financial incentive to provide resources to an insistent global demand is too great. Our solution is to switch that around and demonstrate the value of a standing forest. To show the tremendous benefits a conservation project can bring – from protecting ecosystem services and growing a local sustainable economy, to community wellbeing and health care, all the way through to the global impact of helping to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses.
At the other end of this process are the private sector actors that support these projects through carbon finance. For us, the recent corporate interest that we have seen in supporting tropical forest projects is really encouraging and a clear demonstration of some of the commitments behind the open letters, the lobbying to governments for green recovery plans and shareholder pledges. This is particularly important because the level of investment needed in forest and other natural landscape restoration is far too great for governments alone, it needs private sector involvement. Natural climate solutions – which must be stressed are very important tools but only part of the necessary global response – can only have the impact that we need if it is done at scale.
For Permian Global, we recently celebrated a new and exciting working relationship with Volkswagen, which now has both companies busy working together on an ambitious pipeline of forest protection projects across the tropics.
Similarly exciting and important is our support and involvement in Initiative 20×20 as it drives forward with the 50 million hectare of land restoration goal. So much tropical forest has already been lost in important ecological corridors and this has had the effect of disconnecting the habitats of many threatened species. The restoration activities being developed through the initiative are a vital part of global efforts to preserve biodiversity, as well as working to mitigate and adapt to climate change. By linking these activities to the creation of environmentally sustainable community livelihood opportunities, it is demonstrating that environmental restoration, climate mitigation and economic development can not only coexist but thrive. Such an undertaking would not be possible without the closely collaboration and network of shared knowledge, learning and ambition that is fundamental to Initiative 20×20.