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A paradigm shift is needed to fund the protection, restoration and sustainable management of lifesaving biodiversity

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By Rikkert Reijnen

· 4 min read

Around the world, human populations are facing a mounting set of existential challenges that compromise our health, safety, and survival – rising temperatures, food and water insecurity, disease pandemics, geopolitical instability, air and water pollution, and mass migration. Although these are often viewed and treated as separate issues, they are deeply interlinked by a clear unifier – the diminishing biodiversity on our planet. 

In recent years, there is a lot of conversation on how we rapidly limit and reverse our planetary degradations to restore stability on all fronts. The biggest opportunity for impact is an exponential increase in private-sector funding for nature-based solutions. 

Conservation finance gap

It’s all about the money. Worldwide we’re currently spending close to US$150 billion annually on biodiversity conservation. There is a more than US$700 billion gap between what is available and what is needed for protecting the world’s most critical ecosystems.

For too long the corporate world relied on governments to take care of our natural world. Truth is laws, public policies, and politics have failed nature. To a large extent, corporations owe this failure to themselves. Corporate lobbyists have routinely undermined better protection of our natural capital to satisfy their shareholder hunger for monetary capital and unrelenting growth. Additionally, due to their influence and economic interests, global governments subsidize environmentally harmful industries to the tune of US$1.9 trillion a year, only further indicating how much priority is given to the destruction – not preservation – of ecosystems and species extinction in the natural world.

Nonprofits are failing by design

In the past decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) jumped into the gaping hole left by governments and corporations. NGOs have done a ton of life-saving work, but collectively they do not receive adequate financing to battle the second-by-second destruction. 

NGOs are designed to fail in the battle against big business. To put it into perspective – nature conservation organizations rely on two primary income sources: philanthropists and governments. In the United States, environmental nonprofits receive less than 2% of charitable dollars – which in 2020 was $8 billion in total.

Furthermore, philanthropy is just surplus monies coming from individuals who made their earnings by doing business and making investments. Philanthropy is the distribution of profits, while investing generates profits. On top of this, public paradigms and regulations are preventing NGOs from growing. Government subsidies to NGOs have – compared to business industry subsidies - proven to be completely insufficient. 

Businesses on the other end have access to global equity markets capitalized at US$124 Trillion, and startups are equipped to attract talent and grow for decades without making any profit.  

The business sector and investors must rise to the occasion

To bridge the conservation finance gap, the private sector has to stand up and seize responsibility. One way to do this is through public-private-partnershipsThere is an ocean of knowledge, skills and networks within nonprofits. NGOs - in collaboration with scientists, local communities and governmental agencies - have the blueprints for biodiversity protection, restoration and sustainable management in their back pockets. Corporations have the resources to support the roll-out of these blueprints. And the pool of impact investors and venture philanthropists – seeking positive impact while still making a profit – is growing. 

Media can facilitate a paradigm shift 

Collaboration is key. Yet, for innovative public-private-partnerships to economically and environmentally bear fruit an open mind, trust and space to experiment are essential. Journalists and opinion leaders oftentimes uphold the wall between charities and private actors. Each player is judged by the rules of their own sandbox. As a result, they fear reputation damage when collaborating with investment firms and corporations. And business entrepreneurs are struggling with the level of transparency demanded when working in the public domain of biodiversity conservation. 

Engineering disruptive public-private-partnership models that enhance business as well as the natural planet is very well possible. But meaningful change hardly ever comes without trial and error. What we need to fund biodiversity conservation sufficiently requires more than change, it’s a paradigm shift. So, let’s come together, get to work, allow mistakes and reflection, and try again and again until we get this right.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rikkert Reijnen has spent the past twenty years working for non-governmental organizations protecting biodiversity across the globe. His role is to navigate and unite complex stakeholder networks – from government institutions to high-net worth donors to field technicians – around community-based conservation initiatives. To reach the UN biodiversity goals, Rikkert is interested in unlocking the power of the private sector to accelerate biodiversity protection and restoration.

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