Humanity is paying the price for betraying its closest friend. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, “we are committing suicide by proxy”.
The United Nations COP15, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade, finished with a historic deal earlier this week in Montreal. Governments signed an agreement to halt the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems. More precisely, to protect 30% of nature by 2030, reform $500bn (€470bn) of environmentally damaging subsidies, and restore 30% of the planet’s degraded terrestrial, inland water, coastal, and marine ecosystems.
Now a new question arises: how do we turn these decisions into reality?
The NatureBacked podcast by Single.Earth recorded a special episode to debate this heated topic and propose a solution that once seemed too utopian. 🎧 Listen to the full podcast here at NatureBacked or 👀 read the key ideas from this article.
Katherine von Stackelberg is a Senior Research Scientist at Harvard who has many years of experience developing risk-based tools to support environmental decision-making. She also puts her expertise to use at Single.Earth to help build science-based and tech-empowered solutions for the benefit of nature.
Merit Valdsalu is the CEO and co-founder of Single.Earth, a VC-funded GreenTech company, which develops the transformative nature-based currency called MERIT to help the economy fit into nature’s limits. Single.Earth calls for all hands on deck for healthy and wealthy ecosystems on a balanced planet.
Katherine shares her experience of the biodiversity conference, saying the energy was high, people were enthusiastic, and “nature positive” was everywhere. Even more – everybody was calling for mandatory disclosures instead of voluntary ones. For her, as someone living in the United States, it was surprising to learn that the US was not the loudest voice in the room.
Who was there? Companies from various sectors were present, with some notable exceptions like fossil fuels. That’s understandable, as any plan will include reducing or eliminating fossil fuel use. Extractives such as mining were present, however, voicing the importance of using technology that requires metals, lithium, etc., extracted from the ground to function. Society is always going to have to extract on some level. That’s a tricky topic.
Who else was there? Lots of youth and indigenous community representatives. The latter was called the “stewards of nature” as they have a good relationship with nature. We need to work with indigenous people more effectively – which is absolutely true. The youth seemed to be universally skeptical that anything is really going to happen. Talk is talk, and a discussion is great, but they demand to see the action.
What struck Katherine the most – making action mandatory, that would be huge.
“Will all this make a change? Maybe. Hopefully. But you know, the devil is in the details,” states Katherine. There’s a lot of talk about putting nature on the balance sheet. Companies must do things that are net positive or nature positive. Natural capital accounting must become as common as other types of capital. But there’s still a gap in how to put nature on the balance sheet. As long as we have monetized profit as we do now, it’s uncertain what can change. The whole system itself needs a change, a transformation. All stakeholders must come to see that the profit is a beautiful and habitable planet without inequality and injustice. Figuring out a way how to monetize these nature-positive outcomes will be the main challenge.
We are still stuck on the idea that we can fit nature into our current economic system. When in fact, our economic system needs to fit into the biophysical constraint called the planet. How can we make the economic system more like nature? It’s not that difficult on paper, but changing human behavior and mindsets is more complex. Our struggle is not in creating but in implementing and sticking to these new solutions, such as the nature-backed currency. Nature is the only asset that has any value fundamentally and from which all else comes. So, if we have to have profit and figure out a link between nature and the economy, let’s do that!
“If you truly believe that I am the steward of nature, then the best thing for you as a company to do is to go away. Just leave us alone. Stop poaching, extracting, and destroying.”
– rephrasing the indigenous youth at COP15
While Katherine attended the COP15, Merit participated in the climate COP27 in November. Merit continues to share her thoughts on events like COP and their similarities.
In a way, COP27 was very similar to COP15, as both tried to give the indigenous people a voice. Biodiversity has been prominent throughout, as ecosystems’ resilience and health affect the climate. Another significant discussion point at COP27 was the global south and who will pay for the loss and damage already occurring. The questions and challenges of financing are very eminent across all discussions.
“We should have only one COP for all nature as it is so deeply interconnected. Climate and biodiversity are not separate discussions. We have one planet and must keep the ecosystem functioning in all aspects,” suggests Merit strongly.
There’s a lot of criticism for COPs as well. More toward COP27 and climate goals, as it’s painfully obvious we are not progressing well enough. Biodiversity goals are early, so it’s too soon to predict any results. It is a fair concern that COP15 and biodiversity goals will face similar criticism, but let’s hope it will not be the case.
Most importantly, what we should take from both summits is the “all hands on deck” mentality. It has become clear that no one alone, especially the government, will not fix any of the big problems. It’s a systematic error. We have built an economic and societal system that can’t produce results other than the ones we’re getting. By finding these seemingly easy solutions, such as carbon offsetting, for example, we’re not going to get a wide-scale systemic change that’s truly needed.
Humankind has limits we must respect: planetary boundaries described by scientists, finite natural resources, and a maximum amount of CO₂ that nature can sequester. Nature can do many fantastic things. It can undo a lot of the damage we’ve done, and everything can come back to life, but we have to let nature work its magic. We need to give it space and time to heal.
We need to start talking about the planetary ecosystem as a whole, as one ecosystem.
In November, the NatureBacked podcast recorded an episode with the Club of Rome honorary president Anders Wjikman who spoke about the 1972 Limits to Growth. The knowledge was already out there 50 years ago, and it was a best-selling book for decades, but no one listened or took action. Is it a human error that we don’t want to accept bad news?
Katherine comments that the economists were the ones who vilified Limits to Growth. To them, it felt like an attack on the economic system. Which it kind of was because they were asked the question of how do you continue growing when natural resources are depleted. Where will the growth come from when we’re past planetary boundaries?
This does not mean growth is bad, but it can’t be the ultimate measure of success considering the biophysical constraint we have. We can’t grow beyond the constraint. But we can base economic growth on the growth of nature – and that’s what the nature-based currency MERIT is supposed to help achieve. Keep in mind that nature can’t grow endlessly, but it can regenerate.
The next step from Limits to Growth is the Earth4All initiative that builds on the previously discussed scenarios and proposes that we can have it all, but not how we’re currently doing it. For example, if we could have free, abundant regenerative energy (and we can, by the way), what would that mean for the current energy sector and their profits?
“As a startup founder, it's a historic moment to say that the UN has just validated our (no longer utopian) vision.”
– Merit Valdsalu, CEO and co-founder of Single.Earth
Listen to Merit tell the story of Single.Earth’s 3-year journey in the podcast at 29:30.
What began as a local forestry problem in Estonia has now grown into a global ambition to integrate nature (and the ecosystem services it provides) into the economy. As a landowner, you primarily earn money for destroying healthy ecosystems and extracting raw materials. There is an alternative called carbon credit projects like VERRA, which is based on additionality. Meaning, if you want to sell carbon credits from your land, you have to do something additional. This sends a message that simply preserving your intact, healthy forest is not enough. Initially, we also tackled this perspective, and carbon removal is a part of our formula as it is a vital component. However, surprise-surprise, nature is not here for the sole purpose of sucking our excess CO2 out of the atmosphere.
That led us to explore new ways to assess and quantify nature beyond carbon. Biodiversity needs to be a part of the equation—furthermore, all ecosystem services across all natural resources. Essentially, we’re describing the “work nature does” and then generating virtual assets (called tokens) to give it a measurement unit that’s tangible, trustworthy, and transparent. This concept was still quite foreign and challenging for anyone to understand three years ago.
Thankfully, we found investors who believed in the mission and funded the early stage of research and development, which included hiring about 20 scientists to work on the project. This helped us finalize the first significant milestone of creating the methodology and technology to assess and quantify nature—and then create the nature-backed MERIT tokens. While everyone focused on carbon, we very early on understood that biodiversity needs to come into play. We need an instrument that ties ecosystem health into one unit representing it all.
The second milestone is giving the nature-based token a financial value in the current economic system. The economy is growing way too fast, and it’s destroying healthy ecosystems. Although MERIT can be used as a direct contribution to nature preservation, we need to think further. What if we rolled this out as a currency? The more nature we have, the wealthier we are. Wouldn’t that be a good incentive for people to place nature at the heart of everything?
But this is a lot to grasp. At least today. By 2030, MERIT will likely be one of many eco-currencies on the market. This utopian vision of a green economy based on this green money will become our daily reality. It needs to.
To conclude Merit's story of Single.Earth, she summarizes: “This Fall of 2022 has been a massive validation that yes, biodiversity is key; yes, we need all hands on deck; yes, we need a radical and rapid transformation toward a green economy. As the UN made agreements for biodiversity goals at COP15, our team was cheering that we have the instrument right here.” Fascinatingly, the Single.Earth science team is developing an ecosystem integrity methodology similar to the UN research group. This is a significant recognition and affirmation for a startup that it is going in the right direction.
To expand more around the science, Katherine continues the discussion by saying: “Essentially, Single.Earth is paying individual landowners to make nature-positive decisions. We started with forests, but this is not where it ends. Eventually, we want to have every pixel of nature. And yes, it sounds lofty or a moonshot, but it’s really not. It’s what we need.”
When talking about biodiversity, a lot of people hear – species richness. But it’s more complicated than that. What do species need to be successful and to survive? Habitat! That’s land or water and its intact nature. There’s this idea on essential variables that the Single.Earth team pursued, as well as the UN research group. That’s what the Ecosystem Integrity Index (EII) looks like: structure, composition, and function. “We use well-established data sources and work with other scientists – that part we feel really good about,” states Katherine proudly. “And essentially, we have our own Digital Twin to monitor nature’s health at a global scale.”
At the same time, the Digital Twin also allows looking at small scales. Single.Earth can onboard lands as small as 3 hectares. “So yes, we are saving the planet 3 hectares at a time, and it adds up,” cheers Katherine. “Of course, we are working with large conservation areas as well, but we need to include this small-scale functional relationship with nature and truly get all hands on deck.”
Katherine and Merit both highlighted how the overarching “all hands on deck” motto is crucial. Whatever the science, legislation, or technology, if no one uses it... it’s, well, useless.
The solution with the most impact has to be scalable enough to connect all these different players: science, consumers, companies, investors, and governments. It always comes back to the one element that ties the economy together – money.
We have a solution today in the nature-backed MERIT to give back to nature with each transaction and limit our economic activity to nature's boundaries. It’s fundamentally ready, and now we need to adopt it. Consumers have to use it, and companies need to accept it. Governments must send the right signals, investors must see the value in nature, etc. Most importantly, we all need to shift the mindset of what’s possible and start making more nature-positive decisions today.