To reverse environmental loss, we must dodge 5 hurdles


Alexander Pfaff

Originally posted in The Hill


This week’s United Nations’ IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment, to which I was privileged to contribute, summarizes a great deal of science that lays bare the tremendous loss of nature due to human actions. More than 100 nations agreed to the facts enumerated in the 1,000-page report. That alone is a feat of international cooperation and a powerful signal that the truth of rampant degradation of our natural assets is indisputable.

This should and will yield calls to action. Yet, we’ve been here before, from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) to the climate summits in Kyoto (1997) and Paris (2015). As the IPBES report documents, we have learned, unfortunately, that good intentions of just “doing something” often yields little in terms of actual results.

We’ve had decades of public policies, civil engagement and private environmental altruism — and we still need each of those tools. But to reverse environmental loss, we need to change some of the ways we wield those tools. At least five hurdles have tripped us up in the past. 


  1. When policies have reduced environmental deterioration — say the U.S. Clean Air and Clean Water Acts— those whose interests are limited by such policies endeavor to shift public priorities.
  1. As the report makes clear, richer countries where more of the successful environmental policies have occurred are not those where we find highest population growth and extraction from nature. We need conservation to work globally, alongside livelihoods for the poor (including in richer countries).
  1. It is easy for richer consumers to blithely import goods from other countries, where degradation is less effectively regulated but is out of their view. And as the report shows, increasingly they do. 
  1. While environmental civil society and international institutions do work across borders, overall, they have not been up to the task. One reason: the attraction of “happy lies.” Given good intentions, few wanted to admit when interventions were not working. Countries supporting environmental interventions in poorer countries often just wanted legal or moral credit for their cash. Private funders, too, did not want to hear that their programs might not work. Thankfully, calls are rising to base actions on evidence
  1. Governments struggle to pursue balanced visions. Multiple agencies pursue objectives that are in tension, such as environment versus transport, agriculture, mining or energy. While common sense suggests we bundle policies to advance all dimensions of citizen welfare, agencies often jealously protect a single mandate.


What can we do? Roll up our sleeves and actually do the work, together. We must demand measurable gains for nature — while helping those who cannot afford to shoulder the burdens of solving societal problems.  To achieve those gains, we need to use every tool we’ve got. Here are some ways to start:

  • Harness private industry by setting limits on degradation for entire sectors, or even economies, yet allow firms to win that innovate quickly to respect the limits, serving their and our interests.

  • Establish local rights for poor people in developing nations, giving them a stake in outcomes for nature, so they win from monitoring locally and reporting.

  • Provide information to link consumption choices to consequences, as the IPBES report does.

  • Objectively evaluate the actual consequences of both development and conservation policies, no matter how excellent the intentions.

  • Make the “right and left hands” of governments and other public institutions act in concert, understanding how policies interact in order to advance multiple mandates in combination.


As one example of the latter, consider economic investments in roads and rails. Over the next decade, in which they will boom, we can ask: Which routes, and with which complementary protections, would least degrade or even help nature while avoiding debt traps and most advancing trade? Our institutions have not even regularly asked this multi-part question. That is shocking.

We also must leave behind simplistic big-versus-small-government ideologies and admit the distinct strengths of the private and public actors. With a bit of creativity, public policy can reward private sector information, ingenuity and capacity while advancing the greater good.

For this IPBES report to make a difference, it’s time to be global grownups. If we don’t, the next report will confirm it’s even worse.



RELATED: Pfaff appeared on the Policy360 Podcast in May 2019. Listen to the episode here


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