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Cornell research informs ‘nature finance’ for biodiversity negotiators

In opening Finance and Biodiversity Day Dec. 14 at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity meetings in Montreal, also known as COP15, Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, welcomed finance industry leaders and declared that the final Global Biodiversity Framework to be agreed to this week must include mechanisms that support a tripling of annual investments in nature by 2030, to $484 billion.

Global business activity in many sectors – including agriculture, aquaculture, mining, forestry, and oil and gas – is degrading land and driving the loss of natural habitats and the species that inhabit them at increasingly unsustainable rates, and this also has negative impacts on climate. Cornell researchers are proposing novel approaches to account for the true value of nature to the global financial bottom line.

“We started by asking three simple questions,” said John Tobin, professor of practice in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “How much are we spending on nature? How much should we be spending on nature if we want to conserve biodiversity for the long term? And, if there is a difference between what we spend and what we should spend, how can we use novel financial mechanisms to close this biodiversity financing gap?”

With support from Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Tobin has led a far-reaching analysis to answer these questions. The estimates were captured in a report produced in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Paulson Institute in 2020, Financing Nature: Closing the Global Biodiversity Financing Gap. That report is one of the key references for U.N. leaders and country delegations now negotiating the 10-year update to the convention’s biodiversity targets.

Industry leaders are at COP15, which runs through Dec. 19, with pledges to take more holistic approaches that reverse destructive business-as-usual practices. Under discussion by negotiators is the challenge represented in a re-prioritization for financial and economic models that now price nature only as commodities extracted while ignoring value of habitat and livelihoods lost in the process.

“Traditional public funding and novel financial mechanisms are both necessary to fund conservation and restoration efforts and ensure that capital flows become nature-positive,” Tobin said. “Ideally, the language in the final agreements coming out of COP15 will consider a wide range of sources, because no single source of financing, including public funding, will be enough to address the biodiversity crisis.”

According to Tobin’s findings, sustainable agricultural practices may present the biggest short-term wins for biodiversity financing, and closing the gap with nature-positive investments in agriculture was the focus of an expert panel discussion hosted by Cornell Atkinson at COP15. Moderator Alan Martinez, senior manager at Cornell Atkinson, challenged the panelists to describe their organizations’ contributions to nature-positive agriculture in tangible terms. The panelists agreed that their efforts, when combined, represent the biggest opportunity to nurture and replicate new tools and practices and leverage multi-sector partnerships to the scale that invites returns on large-scale investment.

“How we engage with food is critical, and we look forward to building a new food system that supports all of us within ecological boundaries,” Romie Goedicke said when asked how her work to lead finance initiatives at the U.N. Environment Program includes global agriculture. She added, “Agriculture and the financial sector are front and center in changing our relationship with nature.” Goedicke was among four experts representing finance, nongovernmental organizations and agency perspectives on the panel.

“At Cornell, we have the expertise and experience to help transform the food system to be more nature-positive from farm to grocery store,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, “and the COP meeting is a powerful forum where we collaborate with policymakers, business leaders and conservation organizations to move research into positive impact more quickly.”

The Cornell University delegation to COP15 included eight faculty and staff members who engaged with agency leaders, peers and policymakers as leaders in negotiations and events.

John McKain is director of strategic communications and marketing at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

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