COP15: WWF leader shares how to save the planet

MONTREAL — At 3 a.m. Monday, Marco Lambertini was awake, sitting in a giant conference room downtown, lit by fluorescent lighting and surrounded by government officials from around the world. He was far from the Swiss mountain trails he likes to hike, but he wasn’t going to miss one of the most important moments in his four-decade career.

Lambertini heads the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the largest environmental organization on the planet, with approximately 9,000 employees and 72 offices. That Monday, he was waiting for more than 190 nations to agree to a historic agreement to halt the decline of nature: the top item on the agenda at COP15, a UN conference that concluded this week in Montreal.

Finally, shortly after 3:30 a.m., the deal was closed, and it is historical. The agreement commits more than 190 counties to 23 goals designed to halt biodiversity loss within the decade, including conserving at least 30 percent of the land. WWF and Lambertini, 64, have been advocating for years for countries to adopt the 30 percent target, known as 30 for 30.

“The agreement represents an important milestone for the conservation of our natural world, and biodiversity has never been higher on the political and business agenda,” Lambertini said after the adoption of the agreement.

Even with a new agreement in place, the environmental movement still faces major obstacles. The major activities that drive the global economy, from factory farming to energy production, harm ecosystems and the animals they support. Any effort to save wildlife will have to work with the industries that are destroying it. And while statistics on biodiversity loss are dramaticit is still difficult to get the public, companies and politicians to care about them.

In order to succeed in its mission to stop the destruction of nature, WWF will have to deal with these problems. One afternoon at COP15, I sat down with Lambertini to understand how he plans to do that, and what hope he has that the environmental movement can really succeed. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Going beyond pandas to make people care about the environment

benji jones

How bleak is the decline of wildlife, really?

marco lambertini

it’s frightening Frightening.

The latest figures show a 69 percent [average] Decline in global wildlife populations in 50 years. These are species that have been on the planet for millions of years.

One million species are on the brink of extinction. We have lost almost half [or a third] of the woods, half coral reefs. I mean, it’s really bad. We are reaching ecological tipping points with catastrophic impacts.

An underwater photo shows a diver with flashlights pointing at the corals, which are white.

A diver looks at bleached corals near the Society Islands in French Polynesia on May 9, 2019. Global warming is causing corals to bleach, which can kill them.
Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

benji jones

However, it can still be difficult to get people to care about this. How do you inspire the general public to care about these declines, especially if they are not the type to enjoy outdoor activities?

marco lambertini

There are two dimensions. The most obvious is that many people feel a very strong moral duty to coexist with the rest of life on the planet. You see this with children. We all have an instinctive affiliation with wildlife. You put an animal in front of a 2-year-old and his reaction is fascination, not fear. There’s a lot of that in everyone.

The other side of the story has less to do with wildlife and more to do with nature as a system. A few decades ago, he realized that protecting the diversity of non-human life is also the greatest contribution to protecting humanity. Suddenly, the humanitarian and ecological agendas merged.

Marco Lambertini, General Director of WWF International

Nature is our best life insurance for the future. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the stability of the climate, our mental and physical health, our emotional and spiritual capacity, are all related to stable and healthy natural systems.

Journalists should be connecting the dots. Between nature and migration, nature and conflicts, nature and food insecurity, nature and climate change.

benji jones

Does this represent a change in WWF’s messaging around conservation? I listen to WWF and think of pandas, tigers and other charismatic creatures, but not all of these links.

marco lambertini

Yes, totally. Using tigers and pandas to inspire conservation has been very effective for WWF; we have been constantly growing. That is undeniable.

But I have to say that maybe what we could have done, and what we’re doing now, is to connect the dots and highlight other wildlife that may not be as charismatic but incredibly important.

A moth on a bright purple thistle flower.  The moth's wings are subtly shaded in color, smoky grey, blue and green, with hints of bright red dots.

A six-spotted burnet moth pollinates a thistle in Ladywell Park on July 21, 2014 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

There is a new understanding that many species that we dismiss as irrelevant play key roles in ecosystems. Take moths. Moths are incredibly important for pollination, but we don’t see them because they come out at night. We also now understand that phytoplankton in the ocean are absorbing the equivalent of four times more carbon than the Amazon every year.

Can capitalism solve the biodiversity crisis?

benji jones

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the environmental movement has, thus far, failed to halt the loss of species and ecosystems. Do you see that changing?

marco lambertini

There have been many failures. The [wildlife] indicators speak for themselves.

But although the general trend is a downward curve, there are also many examples of nature recovering locally. It’s time to scale that. To do that, we need to change the system, which is the big conversation here. [at COP15].

The climate movement is taking over the energy sector. Last year, 75 percent of the investment in new energy generation was in renewable energy. The other sectors we need to address are agriculture, fisheries, forestry and infrastructure.

benji jones

But how can these industries really be transformed within a capitalist society?

marco lambertini

The capitalist economy needs to evolve. Right now it’s shareholder capitalism: there are private gains and public losses. That needs to change to what some people call a stakeholder capitalist approach, where the stakeholders, the people, benefit, not the shareholders.

A capitalist approach has produced fossil fuels, which have brought benefits to people, but are now ultimately harming society. That has to change. The same is true of intensive agriculture.

From an ideological perspective, I would agree [that you can’t stop biodiversity loss within a capitalistic economy]. But if you take a pragmatic approach, in the face of urgency of the need for change, we need to focus on making the existing system more socially and ecologically oriented.

benji jones

What does that really look like?

marco lambertini

It’s important to have global leadership that comes from governments, just like what happened with the climate movement. Imagine if you didn’t have the Paris Agreement. Without it, there would have been some companies trying to do their best and a lot of companies that would have preferred to keep the status quo. Paris sent a signal that the regulation would kick in and make the polluter pay up over time.

We have to make the same thing happen with nature. We want an agriculture that does not pollute or sterilize the soil. We want fishing that allows fish populations to be replenished.

While there are many logical economic reasons to transition [industries away from these harmful activities], there is resistance from the oil companies and Big Food. But I have had exchanges with agricultural companies and they know that things cannot continue like this. They know.

[Note: Under the new biodiversity framework, countries will need to start requiring large corporations to disclose their impacts on ecosystems.]

Cattle graze at a ranch in the Amazon rainforest in the state of Pará, Brazil, on June 22, 2022. Cattle farming is the main driver of deforestation in Brazil.
Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg via Getty Images

benji jones

Meat production is perhaps the single most important driver of biodiversity loss. If your goal as an organization is to combat the loss of nature, why not put all your resources into making the world vegetarian?

marco lambertini

You would never put all your resources in one bucket and there is no silver bullet. Even if it did, it won’t solve the world’s entire set of problems.

I am a vegetarian, but the idea is not to force people. We just need to reduce consumption, and the first step is to promote awareness about the impact of our diet.

What this new deal means for the future of wildlife

benji jones

Is this new global agreement on biodiversity really going to make a difference?

marco lambertini

It’s like the Paris Agreement. And again, imagine if we didn’t have Paris. Where would I be now, without a road? Without a goal of around 1.5 degrees and net zero emissions by 2050? It allows companies to develop plans and governments to commit and hold them accountable. Today we can look at websites and see which governments and companies are ahead or behind. [on reducing their emissions]. This creates a completely different environment for accountability and social pressure.

About nature, we have nothing. All companies say, “We’re great.” They really aren’t. Here we want the equivalent of 1.5 degrees for nature, which we think of as “halting and reversing nature loss.” It is measurable because we know how much we are losing.

So we need to conserve at least 30 percent of the planet and reform the economic engines of [ecological harm], which are all in the text of the agreement. It’s pretty solid. It’s not all we wanted, but the deal will give us a chance to start holding businesses and governments accountable.

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