Today marks our 45th Earth Day -- 45 years of watching vertebrates die to the point that we now have half as many as we did in 1970, and 45 years of watching greenhouse gas concentrations soar, to the point that temperatures are now inching menacingly upwards. But in the past year, we've also seen a surge in awareness of our own dependence on our planet's living ecosystems -- an awareness that may, just may, spark the kind of action needed to get us out of this mess.
22 April 2015 | Two days after posting what may be the first rap song about ecosystem services, spoken-word artist Prince Ea has drawn nearly 25 million visitors to the video of his song "Sorry", which begins as a hypothetical apology to future generations but mutates into a call to action inspired by visits to forest carbon projects in Africa: Kenya's Kasigau Wildlife Corridor Project and the Democratic Republic of Congo's Mai Ndombe Forest Conservation Project.
"Trees are amazing," he says. "We literally breathe the air they are creating. They clean up our pollution, our carbon. They store and purify water. They give us medicine that cures our diseases, food that feeds us, which is why I'm so sorry to tell you that we burned them down."
To save them, he adds, "We must...realize that we are not apart from nature; we are a part of nature, and to betray nature is to betray us. To save nature is to save us."
After the ode to ecosystem services ends, Ea implores his fans to "balance the amount of pollution that you yourself give off" by purchasing offsets through the Stand for Trees program, which aggregates forest-carbon offsets from across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Judging by his Facebook page, people are getting the message. "You nail it once again," wrote James Cleave of London. "Thank you. I've donated."
Purists will argue that offsets aren't really "donations"; they're "payments for ecosystem services" (a subtle but important distinction that underlines the value of nature, rather than the goodness of the giver), but it's still reassuring to see an entertainer reaching out to a mainstream audience with a challenging message that goes beyond the usual bromides and broadsides we're accustomed to. Can it be that the innovative financing mechanisms pioneered in the 1970s are also finally beginning to resonate among the larger community?
Here's a few reasons why the answer may be "yes".
Water conservation and management. In Peru, the Ministry of Environment has been working in partnership with Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends to develop the Watershed Services Incubator, which promotes cost-effective methods to maintain watershed services and keep the water flowing in Lima, one of the world's largest desert cities. The program works with Lima's water utility, SUNASS, implementing highly innovative solutions to the dire problem of sustaining our water supply.
Protecting the forests that store carbon - with finance, not fences. The financing mechanism called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) supports the protection of "ecosystem services" (living forests, for example, which suck carbon out of our atmosphere). One such recent REDD success story comes from the Madre de Dios region of Peru, where the Tambopata REDD Project aims to support 1,100 farmers on sustainable cocoa production and protect a biodiverse national reserve, with help from a $7 million investment by Althelia Climate Fund.
Supporting the stewards of the forests. A consortium of nine environmental and indigenous organizations called AIME (Accelerating Inclusion and Mitigating Emissions) tackles some of the thornier parts of climate change - and offers real hope. Indigenous people and other local communities control about 33 percent of forest tenure in Latin America. Their stewardship of these swaths of trees - which absorb the carbon emissions of our planet - is a vital tool in the fight against climate change. AIME is exploring the possibility of harnessing indigenous Life Plans to secure carbon finance for indigenous people and embedding indigenous conservation efforts in jurisdictional programs supported by global carbon finance.
Supply chains and sustainability. Our demand for palm oil, soybeans, and beef is driving illegal deforestation around the world, but more and more companies are promising to deliver "deforestation-free" products. Supply-Change.org lets you see which companies are keeping their promises and which are not.
Promotion of non-timber products from the forest. One way to keep forests intact is to make sure they're worth more alive than dead. That's what REDD aims to achieve, but we can also promote demand for sustainably-harvested non-timber forest products. The communities of indigenous people working to conserve their forests and generate alternative sources of income are a key part of controlling climate change, and such trade provides vital support for these communities.
Biodiversity protection. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, agriculture impacts over 8,000 threatened species globally. The forestry sector impacts just under 8,000. A recent study looks at how to promote a solution called a "four-step mitigation hierarchy" to implement biodiversity protection in these sectors. The strategy seeks first to avoid impacts, then to minimize those impacts that are deemed unavoidable, then to restore the areas impacted, and finally to offset damages by restoring comparably habitat nearby.
Earth Day remains relevant. This week, President Obama will celebrate Earth Day by heading to the Florida Everglades to talk about his administration's commitment to climate change mitigation. Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president, said, "We're far beyond a debate about climate change's existence. We're focused on mitigating its very real effects here at home."
Real solutions do exist, and maybe this will be the year we start paying attention to them.