Alejandra Padín-Dujon unpacks the increasing emphasis on nature over climate in the global discourse on climate mitigation, arguing that blurring the lines between the two causes can pose obstacles to achieving adaptation goals.
A curious phenomenon has taken the world by storm: as if by magic, the formerly unique terms ‘climate’ and ‘nature’ have become nearly synonymous. It is increasingly taken for granted across government and industry that addressing nature and biodiversity concerns addresses climate change mitigation and adaptation priorities. Accordingly, nature finance is increasingly counted towards commitments for climate. The synergies between the two camps have come to overshadow distinctions and potential trade-offs—a sleight-of-hand that risks delaying or compromising climate goals.
Stage one: ‘nature positivity’
The term ‘nature positivity’ has only recently entered mainstream discourse; previously, it was rarely used and poorly defined. (If Google Trends is anything to go by, the search term ‘nature positive’ only started taking off by 2019.) By 2021, however, G7 leaders had announced that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’—and thus they thrust this new term (and the nature-climate association) into the global spotlight.
In coverage of the G7’s pledge to ‘halt and reverse’ biodiversity loss in the coming years, the World Economic Forum laid out one definition (among many) of nature positivity: such an approach ‘contributes to solving both [the nature and climate crises]. At its heart, the goal is to halt and reverse the destruction of nature by 2030 with a full recovery of a resilient biosphere by 2050.’
‘Nature positivity,’ with its initial assumption that to be ‘positive’ on nature and biodiversity helps fight the climate crisis, too, heralded the beginning. Soon, the now-ubiquitous nature-climate association would enter full swing.
Stage two: COP15
The encroachment of ‘nature’ into climate discourse and financial allocations was codified in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the outcome of the Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022 (known as COP15). It began with associative language and framing: per the UN portal Principles for Responsible Investment, ‘Nature and climate are two sides of the same coin. COP27 and its biodiversity equivalent COP15 play important roles in advancing policy responses to the climate and nature crises… [COP15 is the] Paris moment for nature.’
While the GBF is a biodiversity document first and foremost, it is not silent on climate. Critically, optimisation of ‘co-benefits and synergies targeting the biodiversity and climate crises’ constitutes its own target. In singling climate synergies out for special mention, the GBF follows the global trend of pursuing climate-nature policy compatibility. Simultaneously, however, it opens the door wider to the conflation and collapse of these distinct—and not entirely mutually reinforcing—finance categories.
In recent months, this nature-climate discursive intertwining has given way to further collapse of the two causes. Government and non-governmental actors have pushed this conjunction enthusiastically. The conflation is politically expedient: in opinion polls, the (UK) public embrace conserving nature across party lines. For private sector actors in hard-to-decarbonise industries, investing in nature is an easy way to score environmental, social, and governance or ‘ESG’ points.
The UK government has foregrounded nature finance under the umbrella of climate financing: the UK’s 2023 International Climate Finance Strategy names nature as one of four focus areas. At COP15, the UK government reminded the world of its £3 billion climate finance commitment to nature from 2021—more than one-quarter of its £11.6 billion five-year international climate finance commitment.
In March, as part of a deluge of policy documents ostensibly on climate, the government even released a report on ‘nature markets’—an emerging, small-scale form of offsetting that has apparently found purchase in in the UK. Under the Environment Act, developers in many areas of England will be required to deliver biodiversity benefits through the purchase of ‘biodiversity units’ from 2023.
More bizarrely, oil giant BP has recently positioned itself as a biodiversity savant. This includes support for ‘natural climate solutions’ (NCS), a sub-genre of the more familiar ‘nature-based solutions.’ Indeed, BP is a founding member of the CEO-led affinity group NCS Alliance—and BP attended COP15 as part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. To state the obvious (but with academic credentials): ‘Market-led environmental governance approaches are frequently plagued by fundamental conflicts of interest.’
Synergies meet trade-offs
Synergies between nature and climate causes abound: natural carbon sinks mitigate greenhouse gas accumulation, ‘green infrastructure’ like mangroves can serve as bulwarks against intensifying natural disasters like hurricanes, and ‘agroecological’ practices that farm biodiverse crops in harmony with nature support climate adaptation goals by minimising post-disaster losses.
However, nature and climate are not interchangeable—and accordingly, actions in one sphere are not always perfectly aligned with, or maximally efficient to produce, results in the other. Academic literature that empirically examines synergies and trade-offs between nature and climate policy remains scant. However, initial research indicates that even within the narrow purview of land use policy, there can be significant trade-offs (e.g., in the management of German forests and coastal ecosystems). Most importantly, even where biodiversity policy contributes to climate mitigation and adaptation, it can be expensive and incur high opportunity costs. Are large expenditures on conservation optimal for climate-oriented fiscal priorities? The case is far from clear cut.
Ultimately, the nature incursion appears to be merely hazardous to straightforward climate aims, and not yet actively threatening. The hazards lie in blurring the conceptual distinctions between biodiversity on the one hand, and climate on the other. Where these distinctions are obscured, trade-offs go unacknowledged, and political agendas—or profit motives—determine nature and climate spending, to the detriment of optimised policy.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image: Government-sponsored mangrove reforestation initiatives in Fiji to combat eroding coastlines and restore mangrove forests where they have been cut down due to coastal development. Credit: Tom Vierus / Climate Visuals.