The triple planetary crisis

UNEP executive director, Inger Andersen, on why investing in nature-based solutions is key to sustainable development.

The year 2030 is when the world is supposed to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the national targets under the Paris Agreement, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, along with other important agreements.

These intertwined global frameworks are, in essence, a master plan to create a better future for humanity. A future of harmony – with nature and each other. A future of peace, prosperity, and hope. A future in which people live together, work together, and thrive together.

I know this sounds ambitious, almost utopian, but nobody changed anything that really mattered by thinking small. We don’t want to make life a little bit better, for some of the people, some of the time. We want to make life a lot better, for all the people, all the time. This is ambition. This is sustainable development. This is philanthropy.

We will not create a brighter future if we do not tackle the full triple planetary crisis: the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste.

“The ground is falling away beneath the feet of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, while the bank accounts of the world’s richest grow fat with cash.”

A healthy environment is the bedrock upon which sustainable development must be built: healthy oceans, a healthy climate, healthy soils, and more. But this bedrock is being fractured; the ground is falling away beneath the feet of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, while the bank accounts of the world’s richest grow fat with cash.

This environmental degradation is why, in part, almost 90 percent of the SDGs are off track, have shown no movement, or have regressed.

And this is why my agency, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as the leading global environmental authority, is laser-focused on tackling the triple crisis.

We have a lot of work to do. Climate change is here, now. We all see the heart-breaking impacts. The storms. The floods. The heatwaves.

We are driving nature to exhaustion: losses of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity will undermine efforts on 80 percent of assessed SDG targets. Pollution causes millions of deaths each year, human and animal.

But we should not despair. We have the plans in place to: conserve, sustainably manage, and restore marine and terrestrial ecosystems; accelerate the renewable energy transition, while ending energy poverty; do away with pollution and waste; and so, so much more.

But the best-laid plans can go wrong – particularly if they are not financed. We all know the SDGs are underfunded. SDG 14, in support of the ocean, receives the least amount of long-term funding of any of the SDGs.

Meanwhile, investments in nature-based solutions must triple by 2030 to meet climate, nature and land-neutrality targets.

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A cow is seen on the brink of starvation due to more frequent and extreme droughts in Maalimin, Kenya. Photo: UNEP/Nayim Ahmed Yussuf

I want to talk about three underfunded areas where philanthropists can put their money, their efforts, and their partnership capabilities. Areas that will dampen the triple planetary crisis. And in so doing, deliver huge sustainable development benefits.

  1. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)

In the GBF, the world committed to: halt and reverse biodiversity loss; protect 30 percent of the terrestrial and marine environment; put 30 percent of land and marine areas under restoration by 2030; reduce nutrients introduced into the environment; and reduce the risk from pesticides and hazardous chemicals, tackle invasive species and more.

Meeting these targets will require real and predictable funding – as recognised in the goal to mobilise US$ 30 billion to developing countries per year by 2030. This financing must pour into many areas to meet the targets, so that governments have the means of implementation the GBF calls for.

The GBF Fund was launched at the Global Environment Facility Assembly in August 2023 with initial contributions from Canada and the UK. We need to start filling up this fund urgently so that implementation can being in earnest.

  1. Implementing a global deal to end plastic pollution

Plastic pollution has become pervasive and pernicious. Millions of tonnes of plastic pollution enter marine environments each year. Harmful chemicals are posing threats to health. And the linear plastics economy is warming the climate through the emissions it generates.

The good news is that we have the zero draft of a deal to end plastic pollution on the table. Negotiators will start thrashing out the details in Nairobi in November this year, with a view to agreeing the deal in 2024.

The zero draft has all the elements needed to end plastic pollution and deliver a cleaner environment, decent jobs, and real business opportunities. These include: eliminating problematic and avoidable plastic products; redesigning products and packaging to use less plastic and to be more easily reused, refilled, repaired, repurposed, and recycled; switching to safe alternatives; strengthening systems for environmentally sound waste management and disposal.

I am calling on negotiators to set ambitious targets and timelines. I am calling on the private sector to start innovating, now, to design out plastics and harmful chemicals. And I am calling for the financing that will be needed to deliver the deal.

Governments and the plastics industry should lead. But there will be gaps. We need solidarity, support, and funding for a just transition that puts people such as waste-pickers at the centre. We need investments in solid waste management. And, of course, we need investments to clean up the legacy pollution that will wash up on our coastlines for decades to come.

  1. Adapting to climate change

As I said, climate change is with already with us. Barely a day goes by without some climate change-linked event claiming lives, destroying property, and devastating livelihoods.

The world must act now on adaptation. It can do this by: leaning heavily on nature; harnessing traditional knowledge; restoring and managing ecosystems; reforming food systems to protect livelihoods and food security; prioritizing early warnings and preparedness; and climate-proofing cities and infrastructure.

We should look hard at projects that both build resilience to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nature-based solutions such as restoring coastal ecosystems are particularly effective, as they sequester carbon and provide all manner of adaptation services, such as protection against extreme weather.

To achieve this, we are going to need over US$300bn per year by 2030. The funding gap is huge: international adaptation finance flows to developing countries are five to ten times below estimated needs and growing. This finance must come from various sources, including philanthropy, and be directed appropriately through international and national frameworks.

“Our collective task now is to make philanthropy work harder. Better. Faster. We are seeking a world in which sustainability, harmony and equity are not just buzzwords, but daily principles we all live by.”

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Plastic recycling can create livelihoods. Photo: UNEP.

We have already seen many examples of environmental philanthropists driving change. I commend the Velux Foundations’ Ocean Institute, which focuses on restoring marine nature and ecosystems while driving sustainable blue economies. This aligns with the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and Decade on Ocean Science.

The Global Fund for Coral Reefs, co-chaired by UNEP and the UK, is a coalition dedicated to the conservation and restoration of coral reefs and the resilience of coastal communities that depend on them. And Tompkins Conservation, co-founded by the CEOs of North Face and Patagonia, has done much on rewilding, marine protected areas and more.

So, philanthropists have done a lot. But, as ever, we want more. UNEP is actively seeking deeper engagement with philanthropy.

Through UNEP and the multilateral environmental agreements and bodies UNEP hosts, member states and others, including philanthropists, have delivered real change. This includes: repairing the ozone hole; phasing out lead in petrol; and starting to act on climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Multilateralism works. Philanthropy works. They work better together.

UNEP can help foundations achieve their objectives and reduce time to entry for investments. It can help foundations engage in international fora and with environmental experts. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on ending plastic pollution is a case in point.

UNEP can offer foundations access to its peer networks and coalitions of partners, including UN agencies, academia, and other environmental stakeholders. Partnerships between foundations and UNEP enhance advocacy, credibility, and reach.

Our collective task now is to make philanthropy work harder. Better. Faster. We are seeking a world in which sustainability, harmony and equity are not just buzzwords, but daily principles we all live by.

This is not a dream. It is a vision. A plan. A goal to which we must all aspire. And reaching this goal hinges on fighting tooth and nail for a healthy environment.