Perhaps decarbonisation is the easy part.
That's not to say it is actually easy, obviously, but there is both a relatively broad agreement on how it might be done and growing evidence that it is starting to happen.
BP's potentially landmark write down of $17.5bn of oil assets yesterday in response to its downwards recalibration of future oil demand is just the latest evidence that the net zero transition is poised to accelerate. It may not happen fast enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, but all around the world the disruption caused by increasingly cost competitive clean technologies and the growing clamour for green economic recovery packages demonstrate how net zero emission economies could emerge over the next three to four decades.
Would that the same could be said of global biodiversity - or the living natural world to give it its more evocative name and rid it of the emotional distancing that accompanies the dry scientific terminology.
We are, as has been well documented, deep into a great extinction event as flora and fauna are forced into ever smaller enclaves. This biodiversity crisis is unleashing equally well documented risks for human civilisation, including but not limited to diminished soil fertility, pollinator loss, increased flood and wildfire impacts, eroded food security from land and sea, rising greenhouse gas emissions, resource insecurity, and, of course, new and dangerous disease vectors.
Everyone knows this, and yet efforts to tackle these risks remain diffuse, under-funded, and even contradictory.
The consensus on climate action is far from perfect (nor would you want it to be), but there is a broad agreement around how a mix of clean technology innovation and advanced R&D, low carbon infrastructure, shifting consumer attitudes, and effective policy interventions could drive rapid decarbonisation. Most important of all, plummeting clean tech costs point a path towards how the market failure that leads to climate change - the failure to put a price on polluting externalities - could be rectified.
Efforts to tackle biodiversity loss enjoy no such luck. Consequently, in much of the world the forest is deemed to have more economic value felled than it does standing. The yields are seen to be higher if the field is soaked in pesticide. The wildlife is worth more caged in a market than free in the canopies.
And not only is there no consensus on how to tackle this underlying problem, there is in reality intense disagreement on the best route forward. Should we rely on governments to protect the commons and expand and enforce protected zones on land and at sea? Or should we use clever accounting methods and offsets to attach a clearer economic value to all the ecosystem services the natural world provides us? Is the marketisation of nature anathema to environmentalists or their last, best hope? Will the innovation fairy save us or is a much more robust regulatory approach urgently required? Should these conflicting schools of thought be presented in binary opposition or should we be embracing both approaches?
Whichever approach we take, will it work? Can we protect remaining forests while respecting the sovereignty of states who see forest resources as key to their development? Can we expand natural habitats while maintaining food security and respecting farming communities' legitimate concerns? Is there enough land for every carbon intensive industry that wants to invest in nature-based solutions to offset its on-going emissions? Will the Shell forest rub up against the BP forest, which may in turn merge into the Heathrow forest? Can we develop market-based mechanisms that are genuinely credible? (It is worth noting that this remains arguably the biggest sticking point in the negotiations to finalise the rulebook of the Paris Agreement). What should the balance be between genuinely re-wilded habitats and managed forests to provide the timber and biomass we will likely need for a green building revolution and negative emissions energy?
At the corporate level how can well-intentioned commitments to eradicate deforestation or over-fishing from supply chains hope to make a difference, when ranchers, loggers, and trawlers still have plenty of less fastidious clients to sell to?
The one bit of good news is that these questions are at last being asked a bit more forcefully. Yesterday's launch of a major new Business for Nature campaign is backed by some of the world's largest corporates and is focused on a lot of the right issues. It also sends policymakers a crucial signal that we are deep into a crisis that cannot be pushed down the priority list forever,not least because it is having real, demonstrable economic impacts.
Add in Unilever's latest pledge to crack down on supply chain impacts and mobilise €1bn of investment in natural projects and there are encouraging signs that a growing band of corporates are keen to identify some of the answers, even if the questions remain as complex as ever.
We are a long way from tackling the biodiversity crisis and it is clear there is no quick fix available. Biodiverse systems are being broken and we will all reap the consequences. But where proper habitat protection and recovery has been engineered we have seen glorious evidence of nature's immense resilience and adaptability. Recovery is possible, but only if businesses and politicians are willing and able to wrestle with many of the world's most intractable environmental policy questions.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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