Until recently, international meetings on biodiversity, held under the auspices of the Convention on Biodiversity, have suffered relative anonymity compared with higher-profile climate negotiations. While nature groups and environmental scientists have long pointed out the link between climate and biodiversity crises, climate solutions have neglected biodiversity in favour of renewable energy or green technology development.
The recent COP15 in Montreal ratified a new post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, with notable elements in setting aside 30 per cent of the earth’s land and oceans for the protection of nature, and restoring at least 30 per cent of the world’s degraded habitats.
This is particularly important for the majestic forests, rich coral reefs, wetlands and tropical peatlands in South-east Asia. But critical ecosystems need considerable human assistance to recover. Degraded habitats, particularly peatlands, emit a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide, which causes climate change, more volatile and extreme weather and consequently an increase in natural disasters such as landslides or flooding.
Healthy ecosystems, on the other hand, store unimaginably large amounts of carbon, buffering us against the dangers of climate instability. What’s critical is a strategic approach to land management, integrating efficient agricultural production with the protection of healthy and diverse habitats, while degraded landscapes are being restored.
Currently, the mammoth task to restore habitats has highlighted how South-east Asia lacks a coordinated vision, with its initiatives scattered across the region. While an international mandate to restore degraded habitats is a laudable and necessary step, a strong framework and a mechanism to translate policy into meaningful action and outcomes are a must.
In this regard, the announcement in 2022 that the European Commission had tabled a Nature Restoration Law, which will impose binding targets on member states to facilitate the recovery of nature, offers policymakers in South-east Asia a formula to reflect on.
The law, which remains to be passed, creates a framework that will see EU member states restore a variety of degraded habitats including forests, peatlands, wetlands, grasslands and seagrass meadows. It will see them attempt to reverse the decline of pollinators, prevent net loss of green urban spaces, maintain a minimum level of canopy cover in European cities, increase farmland diversity, as well as improve the quality and flow of rivers.
There will undoubtedly be much discussion between the European Commission and member states on implementing these obligations nationally. The final result may well be an uneven tapestry negotiated in the back rooms of European politics rather than a legislative tour de force. Nevertheless, the proposed law is an instrument of laudable ambition and appears to embrace several key principles of environmental protection and governance.
First, traditional narratives on the co-existence of nature and development are replaced by a firmer and more holistic acceptance that nature plays a part in economic growth, climate resilience, food and water security, clean air and water, as well as physical and mental health. In the wake of Covid-19, the law exposes the consequences from a rapacious relationship with nature, and is a clarion call for green recovery and growth.
Second, the law accepts that nature is in a state of crisis, and that restoration rectifies consequential maladies while seeking to deliver both ecological functionality and human well-being.
Third, it is premised on the benefits of a collective and coordinated approach across a political geography rather than a reliance only on well-meaning national initiatives.
Finally, it accepts that restoration must embrace a variety of carefully considered approaches and modalities that go beyond well-choreographed tree-planting initiatives. These potentially include giving nature the space to recover and incentivising those who facilitate recovery. Implicit in the law is also the notion that, if we pursue restoration as assiduously as we should, green jobs would follow along with economic growth.
Few would contest the validity and applicability of these principles to South-east Asia, where it is acknowledged that uneven weather patterns and natural disasters will increasingly impact economic growth and resilience, leaving the poor the most affected.
Can restoring biodiversity in South-east Asia be achieved within the framework of a far more conservative political instrument like Asean? It does not have the mandate to bind member states and enforce obligations. Non-interference in the internal affairs of states is a sacrosanct principle, and economic prerogatives are guarded fiercely.
With decisions taken by consensus, it’s always challenging to achieve common understanding across a bloc where economic development is uneven, cultural experience more varied, and a more structured union is not envisaged. Yet, it is arguable that the principles that the law embraces can find a home within the unique vision that is Asean.
Asean initiatives have already embraced the restoration pathway. The Asean Centre for Biodiversity, through the Asean Green Initiative and its Biodiversity Conservation Programme, is already well positioned to facilitate and coordinate the restoration of ecosystems. Asean has also come together in the context of the Asean Peatland Management Strategy to address the sustainable management of peatlands.
Although Asean cannot mandate or enforce, it can play a significant role to convene, influence and connect.
In their respective countries, member states have organically fashioned solutions that can be utilised more broadly in delivering restoration agendas.
Cambodia has become a leader in securing nature through carbon financing. The Philippines has been the clearest in linking the benefits of restoration to poverty reduction, youth engagement and corporate responsibility through its National Greening Programme. Indonesia has offered insights into how restoration can take place at scale with its national peatland restoration strategy and its championing of Ecosystem Restoration Concessions, which envision the private management of landscapes to facilitate restoration.
Singapore has developed and implemented thinking around the greening of cities through the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology. Asean is well positioned to pull these threads together and orchestrate a collective understanding and conversation on the possibilities around restoration.
Given that sustainable and green growth is contingent on a positive relationship with nature, Asean can encourage the scaling up of economic initiatives and growth trajectories that facilitate restoration. The Asean Catalytic Green Finance Facility and the Asean Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance already support this pathway. Other initiatives benefiting the Asean region offer replicable models that speak more directly to the restoration agenda.
In October 2021, the Asian Development Bank, backed by technical support from BirdLife International, launched a Regional Flyway Initiative employing the East Asian-Australasian Flyway as an organising principle for sustainable development.
The initiative, which includes South-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, envisages a blended finance approach of loans and grants to support nature-positive initiatives. This includes promoting coastal resilience and economic development of communities on the margins of wetlands.
Asean can influence multilateral development agencies and commercial banks to develop similar initiatives to finance green infrastructure and nature restoration in the region.
Asean could also lead efforts to properly value nature so that its role in delivering economic growth and climate resilience is mainstreamed in decision-making at the expense of counter-arguments focused on its exploitation.
Asean can facilitate and regularise the movement of conservation finance by connecting willing funders with nationally prioritised restoration initiatives.
For instance, the decision by automotive industry leaders BMW and Pirelli to support the improvement of rubber production, forest protection and livelihoods at the Hutan Harapan Ecosystem Restoration Concession in Sumatra complements the sterling efforts of the Indonesian government to encourage growth in the region and demonstrates the role corporate sustainability projects can play in augmenting restoration initiatives. It also recognises the importance of sustaining communities that ultimately guarantee the success of these initiatives.
Additionally, Asean is well positioned to bring market visibility to initiatives that encourage local support for conservation and restoration. Rice farmers who support the sustainable management of wetlands used by the eastern sarus crane in Cambodia have been incentivised through the branding of their produce as sustainably sourced “crane rice”.
Similar initiatives deserve to be amplified as part of a bigger Asean story around the role of local people in sustaining natural infrastructure, to ensure that purchasing decisions reward the restoration of nature.
The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic had inspired narratives to restore the health of ecosystems as part of a green recovery. But the Ukraine war causing a spike in the prices of food and energy may see the convenient return to short-term gains, which have historically bedevilled efforts to develop a sustainable relationship with nature.
These factors make the role and imaginative vision of both the European Union and Asean more needed than ever, as nations seek to achieve the goals of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.
- Shawn Lum is president of Nature Society (Singapore).
- Vinayagan Dharmarajah is regional director (Asia) and head of governance at BirdLife International.