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President's Letter: Conservation at the scale of reality

Carter Roberts headshot

"The threats we face are global in scale; they’re spreading at a pace that keeps people up at night. The only way we can succeed is to test inventions often, with others, and then scale up the winners quickly, before it’s too late."

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

A few years ago I found myself with a colleague, floating in a small skiff on the Potomac, enjoying a brown bag dinner and a few libations and talking about life. We mused about work and where we made a difference. My friend remarked that for any group the litmus test is the ability to find the solutions that matter and scale them up as quickly as possible. And then he asked me, what do you have that meets that test?

Every two years WWF produces the Living Planet Report, a detailed accounting of the environmental challenges the world faces. It makes obvious why we need to make a difference in a hurry. But the solutions we devise must still make sense, and that means constantly testing ideas that work and making scalability a priority. So our goal is to find answers that work in the context of one place, with an eye toward expansion to others.

When people ask what scalable solutions WWF is pursuing, I talk about our groundbreaking work in mapping the ecoregions of the world with ecological, rather than political, boundaries. These environmental borders serve as the basis for the planning we do in each community, region, and country, and the approach has been adopted by the conservation movement writ large.

I talk about pioneering certification programs designed to drive sustainability across commodities and sectors with the greatest impact on the planet. We started with timber and seafood, both of which have extraordinary impacts on the environment, and helped create the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Today, close to 10% of the annual global harvest of wild-capture fisheries comes from MSC-certified fisheries, and nearly 15% of the world’s production forests are FSC-certified. Perhaps more importantly, we are changing the way companies and consumers think, as they are increasingly taking into account the environmental impact of the products they source, produce, and sell.

I reflect on our Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) work in the Amazon. PFP projects address a common conservation challenge: piecemeal or insufficient funding for the management of protected areas. Inspired by similar work in British Columbia and Costa Rica, we drove a single closing to assemble the requisite private and public capital, matched by long-term commitments from the Brazilian government to ensure 150 million acres of biologically significant rain forest would be protected in perpetuity. We are now actively working with the governments of Peru, Bhutan, Colombia, and others to do likewise.

I also talk about our work supporting inventive, community-based efforts in places like Nepal, Namibia, and Zambia, where livelihoods depend strongly on the health of natural systems. Through a concept known as twinning, we’re helping communities share their expertise and best practices with one another. The best ideas always take root locally and grow up and out.

Of course, bringing a great idea to scale is all well and good—but the reality is that you’ve got to be flexible if you want to be successful. In almost every case, implementing solutions means adapting them to local circumstances in a way that respects cultures, political differences, and local realities.

Just look at the recent UN climate negotiations in Paris, where the countries of the world came together to face the daunting task of finding a way to combat climate change. They offered real, but differentiated, commitments that reflected the strongest options possible given current political realities. And while their collective agreements may not have solved the problem entirely, it made a huge difference at scale.

We must hold ourselves accountable for results that are measurable and transparent. We must be honest about what’s making a difference and trumpet not only our own achievements and breakthroughs, but also those of others. Above all else, we must be ambitious and hold ourselves to initiatives that will make a difference at a scale that matters. The threats we face are global in scale; they’re spreading at a pace that keeps people up at night. The only way we can succeed is to test inventions often, with others, and then scale up the winners quickly, before it’s too late.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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