WWF chief: philanthropy won't be enough to reverse biodiversity loss

WWF's director general Marco Lambertini at an event. (Credit: WWF/Richard Stonehouse)

Philanthropists and investors last week pledged record sums to stop the rapid decline of the world’s biodiversity – a step in the right direction but one that still falls short of urgent needs, according to WWF International’s director general Marco Lambertini.

At an event held on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, philanthropists, including the Bezos Earth Fund, committed $5bn for conservation efforts and at least 75 financial institutions promised to stop funding activities that harm the environment.

Speaking before the European Parliament, the European Commission’s head Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU would double its funding for biodiversity. China surprised everyone by committing to halting funding coal plants abroad, a significant step towards lowering carbon emissions.

Countries and civil society also gathered online at the highly awaited UN Food Systems Summit to call for a shift in food production and consumption – one of the key contributors to global warming.

However welcome the announcements are, these are far from enough, Marco Lambertini, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), tells Geneva Solutions.

Geneva Solutions: What do the billions of dollars in pledges mean for conservation efforts? How far will that get us in terms of WWF's call to reverse biodiversity loss?

Marco Lambertini: It is the first time that we see this level of commitment from private institutions and from philanthropy. Obviously, it is a super important signal. On the other hand, if you look at the actual needs to fix the very basic crisis, philanthropy won't be enough. We need to redirect the harmful subsidies and investments that today are doing harm to nature, whether it’s agriculture, fisheries, forestry, or infrastructure. Only in that way will we be able to bend the curb of biodiversity loss.

GS: The largest part came from philanthropists, some of which lead corporations with massive carbon footprints. Can the money offered compensate for the environmental cost of their activities?

ML: No, it doesn't. I think it is critical that every organisation, every institution, every government, every company, every individual, in the next several years, halves the carbon footprint. We know that we have a very clear goal: carbon neutral by 2050. By 2030 we need to cut out half of those emissions. That's the path everybody needs to walk. So, philanthropy does not compensate for abatement, but on the other hand, this is a welcome contribution to try to do good to reverse biodiversity loss.

GS: How do we know if the funding promised will be spent in efforts that yield good results?

ML: It depends on who the recipients will be. The recipients haven't been announced entirely. It depends on the governance of this funding and it depends on the selection of the projects. We will do our best to provide all our expertise and advice to make sure that that happens. First of all, the most important question is where we need to spend the money. [It should go] to areas that are really important for biodiversity and need protection because they are under threat.

The second is how the money is actually spent and how the protection is implemented. This is where we really need to look at government regulation and legislation on protected areas, communities, local indigenous communities, direct management of these areas and private ventures as well, a mixture of approaches that will have to be chosen depending on the site and the circumstances at the local level to make sure that the impact is the highest possible.

GS: Looking forward to key upcoming meetings, can we expect important pledges from powerful state actors?

ML: We still have a significant gap. Around $700bn is the estimated amount needed to fix biodiversity loss, and that includes direct spending in protected areas. Today, we are investing around $150bn and we need another $70-$80bn to invest particularly in developing countries where there is not enough financial capacity to protect nature. And the big challenge is to redirect around $700bn per year that governments around the world are giving to unsustainable agriculture, unsustainable forest, and unsustainable fisheries. That is what is driving biodiversity loss today; we're talking about one million species on the brink of extinction. About two-thirds of the global wildlife population has declined in the last 50 years, which is a blink of an eye compared to the millions of years some of these species have been on the planet.

ML: And do you think it's likely that we will see this come out of the upcoming summits?

GS: It's hard because it's what we are seeing in the energy sector. It is shifting finally towards renewable energy, with a huge divestment from fossil fuels and that's happening after the Paris Agreement and the carbon neutrality goal were agreed. The signal to the markets was the future is not fossil fuel, and so the market has begun to shift, including governments.

We need to do the same for nature, we need a global goal agreed at the coming conference on biodiversity next year in China. It will start generating the [same] shift that we're seeing in the energy sector.

GS: Turning to the Food Systems Summit, another key event for the protection of biodiversity, did it live up to your expectations?

ML: First of all, we did welcome the Food Systems summit. It was the first of its kind, and it was long due. Around 25 per cent of emissions and 80 per cent of deforestation come from food systems. So it’s great that we gathered different voices, bringing together people that are supporting the meat industry versus the movement asking for plant-based diets. You can imagine how difficult that discussion is. We were not expecting a major breakthrough but it’s important that the issue has been acknowledged, [even if] it is disappointing that many governments didn’t highlight enough the nature-based solutions for the transformation of food systems.

GS: The summit has been marred in controversy from the start due to a number of reasons. How will this polarisation on both sides affect efforts to transform food systems?

ML: It's like the discussion on energy transformation. Clearly, there is a polarisation. The old companies pushed in one direction and for decades they minimised the issue of climate change. Now the majority of society is embracing renewable energy. I think with food, we're seeing the same thing. Some vested interests are pushing back and embracing a conservative agenda, while other parts of society are pushing for a more progressive planet. I'm not surprised and this polarisation is almost inevitable.

The question is how consumers are beginning to raise their voices and demand from governments and businesses that action is taken. In our latest report with the Economist Intelligence Unit looking at public sentiments towards nature, there is a clear indication that over the last few years it’s not just awareness that is growing very fast, but also the willingness to embrace sustainable diets and healthier food, supported by natural, non-chemical agriculture. That change [in the mindset] of people is hopefully going to accelerate decisions at government level, as well as at a business level, in terms of transformation.