C2GTalk: An interview with Manuel Pulgar-Vidal

What role can nature-based approaches play in addressing the climate crisis?

1 March 2021

This interview was recorded on 17 November 2020, and is also available with interpretation into 中文Español and Français.

Governance is a key element in ensuring that nature-based approaches to addressing the climate crisis support ecological functions, are sustainable, and produce co-benefits, said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal during a C2GTalk interview. Ultimately, he stressed, any intervention—whether nature- or technology-based—can only be considered if it is based on a strong commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of the climate and energy practice of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International. He was formerly the Minister of State for Environment in Peru and President of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20). A lawyer with over 27 years of experience in the field of environmental law and policy, he founded the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, one of the most recognised organisations of environmental law in the region. In his role as Minister of State for Environment in Peru, he was responsible for proposing and defining Peru’s environmental policies, including those covering biodiversity and climate change. He was also in charge of implementing the country’s environmental legislation and its enforcement policies.

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Click on the play icons below to watch the quoted parts of the interview

Right now, the world is facing multiple interlocking crises, including on biodiversity and climate change. How ready is the world to tackle these crises in a joined up way?

I think that we have developed good measures and we are showing that we are taking good actions. But we know that we are not yet on track—that is important to mention.

You have brought up an important term: locking—to connect. The connection between climate and nature—I think that connection, that nexus in between both concepts, is key for our future action, because we cannot address the climate crisis if it is not with nature. And we know that one of the key drivers of nature loss is climate change.

The pandemic has shown us that we have to connect climate, nature and health. We are now in this crisis. We are in an emergency, but our actions do not yet fit with the concept of an emergency. If you compare what we have done in relation to the epidemic, these are clearly actions to face an emergency: lockdown, quarantines, and all those kinds of things. There is not yet an equivalent in climate. So I hope that we have learned what it means to live in an emergency from the pandemic.

In the case of climate, we have clarity on where to go, and that is very important. I am reminded of Former French President François Hollande who said at the COP22 in Marrakech that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and unstoppable. What I can add is that we are now living in a new climate economic world. The economy of the world has already changed to include more climate considerations—so that is positive. But we do still need to move and encourage countries and non-state actors to take more clear and ambitious action.

Unfortunately, the same is not exactly happening with nature and biodiversity, though we are close. The end of 2020 was the end of the decade on biodiversity, and unfortunately, we did not achieve what we expected it would achieve. Probably, we do not have a clear vision on where to go when we think about nature and biodiversity. This idea of living in harmony with nature—it is good for sure, but it is not a measurable vision. How much, by the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Kunming, China in 2021, can we define a more clear vision and move our actions more strongly towards that?

To summarise: things are happening but we are not yet getting traction. We are moving our actions in the correct direction, but we do need to act based on the concept of urgency, ambition and emergency.

You mentioned that from the pandemic, we understood what it means to be in an emergency and how to act when faced with an emergency. A lot of people in this world that we inhabit, in terms of the environmental groups and governments dealing with climate, say they understand the crisis, whether or not they have a clear vision. Do you think that deep down there is a sense of emergency yet—an emotional, visceral connection with the sense that we really are at a stage when things can go very badly indeed, or we can avoid those worse outcomes?

Not yet. Going deeper into this emergency concept, I think that there are still actors that are denying the situation—not only in the citizen level, but also in the political level. Unfortunately, after the Paris Agreement, the world probably changed too much. We moved from the hope of 2015 with the Paris Agreement into a very strongly polarised world with a lot of denialism and a lot of people opposing the adoption of climate considerations and climate action.

But let me say something. I used this analogy some years ago: This is like the last piece of rice that’s avoiding being detached from the pot that we are cleaning up—that is happening and we knew that this would happen. For example: traditional economic activities of fossil fuels, now obsolete technology and equipment, internal engine vehicles—I know for sure they will insist on trying to sell their products. That is why we should keep the idea of where the economy is moving and what kind of immediate action we should take. That is key for me.

That is also key, for example, for a developing country. If we are able to define how we are planning to go into a net-zero world by 2050, probably we would be more able to define stronger and more immediate actions to move our countries towards that. That is why it is important to encourage countries to define their long-term strategy. That is key to changing this current situation in which people are denying that climate change is happening.

To achieve net zero, but also to stay under 1.5°C warming by the end of the century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world would need to both rapidly cut emissions and remove billions of tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere. And of course, the amount that needs to be removed relates to how fast emissions are cut. What role could nature-based approaches achieve in this drawing down of CO₂ from the atmosphere, whilst also meeting the biodiversity challenge at the same time?

That’s an interesting question because nature can play a strong role to address the climate crisis. We know that nature-based solutions are getting traction as a key element; it is the low-hanging fruit to do that. Build that nexus between nature and climate, and address both the climate crisis and the nature-loss crisis.

When we talk about nature-based solutions, we are still talking about an evolving concept. Fortunately, it is evolving positively and strongly. Why am I saying this? First, because we need to agree, all of the different actors, that when we talk about nature-based solutions, we are talking about three main values: 1) it is a sustainable intervention to nature—that is key; 2) it addresses a societal challenge; and 3) it can create co-benefits.

I’m saying this to raise the importance of this phrase. Not every intervention in nature is a nature-based solution. The concept that has been developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is getting traction—that is good. The next step, that has also been raised by IUCN, is the need for criteria and standards. The important standards that IUCN released define: How can we measure the societal challenges that we are planning to address? How can we measure the co-benefits? How can we measure the rights of indigenous people? So we do need to keep that into consideration.

There could be some other interventions into nature that are not nature-based solutions, but can play a role in relation to our climate crisis. The point is: we know where to go. We know that our objective is a net-zero economy by 2050. Our primary obligation, the most mandatory one, is real reduction. Reduction is key.

So when we put forward nature-based solutions or some other intervention on nature, we should keep our top priority based on the Paris Agreement, on our obligation. The reality is that we do need to have real reduction, and we will need to put all of our efforts into producing those reductions. We have not yet developed those actions that can strengthen real reduction, so that is probably why there are so many doubts on the role that nature could play. People know that it would play a key role, but it should not limit our vision for real reduction—that is, for me, the top priority.​

Can you share with us some promising nature-based approaches to this challenge? How much of a role could nature-based solutions play? Some people suggest maybe it could all be done like this, while others would suggest that you’re going to need much more of a portfolio and there are limits. How much of a role do you think various nature-based approaches could play in drawing down CO₂ from the atmosphere?

When you talk about nature-based approaches, how much are you talking about carbon dioxide removal (CDR)? Because those are interventions that could be focused mostly in nature, but also in technology. So we cannot treat it all as the same.

Some nature-based approaches have been recognised by science as the key ones. Let’s take the example of Peru: Our main source of emissions is land use, land-use change and deforestation—and that is happening with parts of the country that are located in tropical forests. That land use and deforestation has not been caused by a commercial or economic activity, but because of poverty. So we know that if we went to cut our emissions, we have to focus our attention on addressing that problem. In that sense, restoration is key because we are talking about an ecosystem that has suffered a lot degradation and deforestation. By working with restoration, we can address not only the climate crisis but also the nature crisis.

For sure, the management and regeneration of forests are key when we think about a nature-based approach. Enhancement of soil carbon is a third idea. These three ideas are also strongly related to the economic recovery. When we think about the post-pandemic time, we do need to promote activities that not only fit with our long-term vision, but that can also promote short-term employment. The relationship between these nature-based approaches with the economic recovery is a key one. So those are three examples, in which we are not talking about technology, but it is about a nature-based approach.

Do you have a sense of the balance between nature-based approaches and technological approaches? I guess it depends, to certain extent, on what we do now and how fast you go with emission reductions. But do you have a sense that you may need a balance between the two? How might that balance play out?

We know that is something that has been suggested by the Paris Agreement, to get that balance. That is clear. The point, is how acceptable in the short term that kind of technology must be. And that is why I recognise the effort of C2G to work in relation to governance—how to govern these kinds of measures. It is interesting that that C2G is working on some principles: actors, different levels, risk assessment, management, rules and regulations (for example, codes of conduct).

I would like to add some other principles when we think about these kinds of technologies. First we should keep our main priority: real reduction. In the sense, these kinds of interventions with technologies must be an exception—at least for now—because as we know that we have not yet promoted actions for real reduction, these kinds of interventions must be an exception.

The technology has to prove that it could promote benefits and is sustainable—that is, for me, a key principle.

Also, we need to consider what is called the mitigation hierarchy. As you have probably heard, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is working on that: the mitigation hierarchy towards net zero. We are in a time when many corporations are defining climate leadership by identifying their claims. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you see it, there are many terms and many claims: carbon neutral, carbon positive, climate positive, and net zero, among others. In some way, this is creating a lack of credibility that is not good for the process, so our efforts must focus on how we can create credibility. How can we really track progress in those kinds of claims? How can we avoid any kind of greenwashing? That is why SBTi is working on this net-zero concept—and they are defining clearly what net zero means. Net zero is strongly related to what is called scope 1, 2 and 3. How much can you do in your own process? But also, how can you define your actions throughout your supply chain (that it is scope 3)? Those are the primary obligations of a corporation when they define their target as net zero. While you cannot treat every sector the same because there are some sectors that are hard to abate, with that you can define what residual emissions mean. And with that residual emission, you can work in some mechanism to produce the balance that the Paris Agreement suggests. But in a time in which we haven’t yet gotten into real reduction, we should continue focusing on real reductions.​

We do need to consider safeguards—and these are mostly social considerations. We do need to consider responsibility and liability when we are thinking about these kinds of technologies. These technologies must be based on science. And, if we can, we need to develop mechanisms as insurance to secure that we are not going to do damage. So those are the elements that, for me, could make it more feasible to talk about these kinds of interventions—but again, this is a time in which our top priority must be real reduction.

Earlier, you used the term ‘restoration’. We see this term all around at the moment: restoring and even sometimes repairing. How do you understand the term ‘restoration’? We see different groups starting to use it in different ways, and we see this theme emerging. In your view, can we restore to what it was? What exactly do we mean by restoration?

It is a key question because when we think about degraded land and forests, we do need to be clear what that means. When we think about degraded forests, it’s not because there are no commercial species or wood. If the forest is maintaining its ecological function, it is not a degraded forest. So that is the first element. When you have already defined that, you can probably identify degraded land clearly. The point, when we think about restoration, is how can we keep that ecological function? That, for me, is key when we think about restoration.

So we are talking about diverse tropical forests in the Amazon. The idea is to restore it with the species that can keep that ecosystem functioning. So it is not through a plantation; it should be by maintaining or managing the diversity of the forest. Also when we think about restoration, we are talking about ways of working in the lab or in the forest that cannot affect the current situation of the forest as it captures emissions. There are many elements that are more related to sustainability, to the rights of the people, to extension of the land, and to the level of intervention when we think about restoration.

Do you think there’s a possibility that some people will use that term in different ways to pursue certain agendas?

There could be, but if we are clear on the criteria, safeguards and standards, as it has been produced for nature-based solutions by IUCN, I think that we can gradually be more clear on what that means. IUCN has produced the standard, but as we are moving nature-based solutions or nature-based approaches into the formal process (and I hope that we can get that formalisation by COP26), it is clear that what could happen is that the parties, the countries, are going to demand more clarity on what it means. In that sense, the use of principles, standards and criteria will be key for the future of nature-based approaches.

There are some other proposals, which have also been referred to in IPCC reports, to reflect sunlight back into space to lower temperatures, known under the umbrella of solar radiation modification or solar geoengineering, for some. Have you got any thoughts on these ideas? Is the world in any way ready to start addressing, thinking and discussing these ideas?

Look, to discuss never means that we are accepting something. So, as an organisation, we are open to discussing and seeing how we should define governance rules for this kind of discussion or decision.But anything that could divest our main objective, it should be at least postponed if not rejected. Again, if we are going to look over some kind of anthropogenic interventions to solve our problem that is not based in real reductions or in the role of nature to address climate change, we are just duplicating what brought us to this crisis. We will need to leave behind our arrogance as human beings to say that by spraying things in the atmosphere, we are going to solve the problem. We know that this has been caused by emissions so we need to cut emissions. So that is my first element.

The second element is more related to: How well it has already been proven that the effect of that technology is sustainable? If it has not already been proven—and by consensus, so it is not just about the scientists but the consensus of different parties—we should again postpone it or reject it.

My third reflection in relation to these kinds of technologies is that, probably, we are more used to seeing these names as a single one. For example, some of those interventions could be land intensive, and the idea is to avoid creating more problems on land with these intense uses of land. The demand for energy could also be a difficulty. So we also do need to define how much these kinds of technology could affect not only directly, but indirectly.

Let me come back to the idea of principles. We need to have governance principles to address these kinds of things.

We use the phrase ‘nature-based solutions’ a lot, and that refers to the IUCN definitions. At the same time, there is this phrase ‘carbon dioxide removal’, which is used in the IPCC literature for both nature- and technology-based approaches. Do you think that people see the concept of nature-based solutions as something different to carbon dioxide removal, almost as though one is seen as nature and the other is seen as technology?

Probably, yes. Probably people are using the concept with a strong difference. When we think about nature-based solutions—and if you read the standards and check the concept—probably people are not thinking of ‘altering’ interventions. And when we think about CDR, we are talking about that kind of altering technology. So with nature-based solutions, it is probably not in the mind of many people as part of CDR, of nature-based interventions based in the CDR concept.

What role is WWF playing in driving conversations about carbon dioxide removal and, even potentially, solar radiation modification? Is it getting involved, to some extent, in these ideas?

As you know, we are discussing with C2G how we can promote governance rules in relation to this kind of intervention. And we have released a position about CDR so we are clear in defining what kinds of interventions are suitable and which ones are not. And to be clear, for us desirable approaches at WWF mean restoration of ecological functions, natural regeneration of forests, and enhancement of soil carbon—not actively supporting afforestation that could have a negative social impact, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, direct air capture and storage, and not suitable large-scale ocean fertilisation. That is the position of WWF when we talk about CDR.

And do you think we’ll see some more direct discussion of some of the carbon dioxide removal in the IUCN, beyond the nature-based solutions discussion, but also to some of the technological approaches as well?

It could be; I hope so. In the World Conservation Congress of the IUCN, that discussion is probably going to be strongly contentious. Probably, you will see the different, even extreme positions in relation to this topic. But that is the way that we discuss things. And despite how contentious it could be, I think it could be a good room to have those kinds of discussions.

In terms of the roles that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may play in these discussions and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—how do you see the discussions about some of these other carbon dioxide removal approaches coming up? And what kind of connection do you see between these two processes in terms of discussing them?

When we think about those conventions and upcoming Conferences of the Parties (COPs), we can separate the formal discussions (negotiations) and non-formal discussions (side events, seminars). And when we think about the formal side, it is clear that the negotiators are used to discussing based on mandates—and there is not a mandate to discuss those kinds of things. So probably on the formal side, we won’t see that kind of discussion. But in the case of that formal process, we hope that at least we could have the recognition of nature-based solutions as a mechanism to address our climate objective. And as it has been identified as a top priority by the President of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), we hope that could be achieved. That’s in relation to the UNFCCC COP.

It is different with the CBD. As you know (and I am not blaming anybody by saying this), the CBD community is more conservative. That is why they are still keeping the idea of ecosystem-based approaches, and they are more reluctant to include this concept of nature-based solutions. I hope that finally we can align both conventions because we do need both conventions to be well-aligned.

In the sense of the non-formal debate, for sure these kinds of things could be debated and discussed. And I think that is a good way to move the discussion forward, despite all the controversy that it could create. I’ve seen that these kinds of discussions will happen—or in the UNFCCC COP26 or CBD COP15.

Latin America has often been in the forefront of sustainable environmental services and innovation. What kind of opportunities and challenges do you see for Latin America in talking about carbon dioxide removal—addressing it and potentially implementing it—both on the nature-based solutions side and on the technology side?

Let me start by saying that there is no single Latin America. Probably, we are used to thinking that there is a single Latin America; there is no single Latin America. In my point of view, ideologically, there are three Latin Americas: one more free market; the second one the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) countries; and the third Brazil, the country-continent.

Secondly, unfortunately, Latin America has not yet clearly defined long-term strategies and short-term actions. I could be wrong. Chile and Costa Rica have made them, but that’s just two countries in a big continent. It is not enough. That could probably limit any type of consideration of CDR or nature-based solutions.

On the other hand, it is interesting, because if you go back to the current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of Latin America, the main source of emissions in most countries is deforestation, land degradation, and land use. So in this time when they are working on enhancing NDCs, what role could nature-based approaches have in enhancing that NDC? But it could take some time. Probably, countries are not mature enough to consider those kinds of interventions, when we think about how much nature-based approaches can support them to enhance NDCs for greater ambition. But Latin America is starting to discuss nature-based solutions. We have the seed of something that is coming in relation to nature-based solutions, but probably not too much about CDR.

Do you think that there is awareness in the general public discourse—either amongst policymakers, but also amongst the wider community—that the challenge, as laid out by the IPCC, is that stopping emissions is not enough? That you also need to bring down between 100 and 1000 billion tons of CO₂, according to the IPCC 1.5°C special report? Do you think there’s an awareness of the scale of that challenge as identified and acceptance of it?

We know that in the end, we will achieve our objective by creating this balance that it is in the Paris Agreement. But I think that the awareness now is for further reductions—for the real reductions—not only in Latin America but for the rest of the world and most of the organisations, like WWF. We need to focus now on one priority and try to move it and push it as much as we can. Probably later, we should be more concerned about how to produce that balance. But for now, and because we still have room to push for that, we should encourage and work with that objective.

C2G is interested in governance, with governance being a very broad process. How do you involve the marginalised, the poor, and those who traditionally might not have a voice in some of these discussions? From your experience, how can, for example, small-scale farmers be brought into these kind of discussions about where we head on nature-based approaches?

It is difficult, and it is not just about small-scale farmers; it is about indigenous people, as is the case of South America and Amazon Basin countries. But probably the starting point to do that is recognising rights. We are talking about rights over the land, rights over the forest, and also the recognition and respect of traditional knowledge and way of living and working. That is the first step.

The second one is that any intervention—in forest management, in restoration action—must include all those kinds of things. What we need to avoid is to have, in the beginning of this process, rejection—as it was with Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). You know how difficult it was to move REDD+ into traditional communities and with indigenous people because they felt that this kind of market could jeopardise their own rights. It has created a lot of rejection. So the point is first, to recognise and respect rights, and second to include them in any kind of solution. That is the way to do it. And we do need to make it understandable: what are the co-benefits produced by these kinds of interventions? First, again, that is sustainable, and that it addresses a societal challenge that could affect them. One of the benefits should be that it’s for the people. So that is why concepts, standards and criteria are important.

If I could ask a last question about your philosophical approach and emotional response: we work in an area which can seem quite depressing and may even potentially lead to some despair about the size of the challenge. At the same time, everybody looks for hope and action that can work. How do you balance maintaining a hope with a realism as to the size of the challenge at hand?

You know, realism is key. But let me tell you, I am optimistic by nature. I remember that when I was President for COP20 in 2014, people used to ask me, “Why are you so optimistic?” I am still optimistic because it is not just about the evidence that things are starting to happen. For me, the most important element is that the economy has started to change—and that is key. That is also the way to convince decision-makers in our countries.

I am going to tell you something that probably could be misunderstood. In Peru and in Latin America, now I am used to saying, “If you want, forget the Paris Agreement.” It sounds weird because I was and am still strongly involved in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. But what I am trying to say is, it is not about a document. It is about the economy. So what we must think about is: What could be the consequences of our lack of action? What could be the consequences for the product that we are used to exporting? What could be the consequences for obsolete technology that could end up in our territory?

That is, in my point of view, the best way to convince internally and to keep the optimism. It is by showing that things that are happening, that the economy has started to change, and that many regions and countries of the world have already defined a net-zero target, and clear and real reductions by 2030. That is going to have consequences in the world economy.

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