November 9, 2023

The new policy wants a ‘nature positive’ world. What changes should we expect in the next 12 months?

“Australians are committed to implementing an ambitious climate agenda and increasing environmental protection, both at home and with our partners, to achieve a net-zero and nature-positive world.”

The new International Development Policy has used the term ‘nature-positive’ up front – and upon release sparked questions amongst a number of colleagues in the sector.

This is a big term to use, and has significant ambition attached to it. It requires we leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and reverse biodiversity loss globally. As some have described, ‘zero net loss of nature from 2020, net positive by 2030, and full recovery by 2050’. It therefore also requires adjusting economic and financial decision-making systems and institutions.

This got us thinking – is Australia really willing to chase a nature-positive world and all it entails, is the use of this term there more for stakeholders and to signal taking things seriously, or is it somewhere in the middle? How will this play out both in the development program, and domestically?

So, this week we went to the experts to paint the picture for us. If Australia were to follow-through on this, what changes would we see in the next 12 months? Here’s what they said.

Polly Hemming
Director, Climate and Energy Program, The Australia Institute

'Nature positive' increasingly features in government and industry narratives, and — like its climate counterpart, 'net zero' — often describes everything and nothing. According to the technical definition, if the Government was committed to achieving "a net-zero and nature-positive world", what we should expect is an immediate halt to biodiversity loss and the rapid restoration of nature to pre-2020 levels by 2030.

While it's a nice idea that development initiatives can achieve the holy trinity of ameliorating poverty, reducing emissions and restoring ecosystems, it's an astronomical ask for a single policy, especially one with no commensurate funding.

Achieving nature positivity would require significant public funding: estimates suggest $1 trillion needs to be spent globally by 2030 to maintain ecosystem integrity (for context, government fossil-fuel subsidies are reported to be around $7 trillion a year globally). However, there is no indication that the government is going to contribute accordingly.

Instead (like many policy areas), the government increasingly suggests ‘catalysing’ private sector finance will solve development problems. It’s an effective way of distracting from government inaction, but still allows big dollar figures to be included in media releases. Unfortunately, private finance often fails to manifest or results in perverse outcomes because economic theory has consistently shown humans and nature simply can't be financialised the way we are led to believe.

There is no evidence that 'nature positivity' is anything more than a rhetorical flourish in the government’s development policy. There is certainly no mention of what it means or how it will be achieved.

Polly has worked extensively policy, marketing and engagement roles in both not-for-profit and public sectors. Now at The Australia Institute, she focuses on carbon and environmental markets, climate integrity and greenwashing, and maintains a strong interest in non-state climate ambition. In a past life, she led the development of a government eco-label promoting ‘carbon neutrality’ by the private sector. At the Lab, we really value the interdisciplinary insights that people like Polly contribute to development debate.

David Poulton
Consultant, Alinea International

While Australia’s new Development Policy (twice) mentions its ambition to create a ‘nature positive’ world, it is noticeably ambiguous in what nature positive development might actually mean, or look like in practice. This ambiguity risks undermining Australia’s broader strategic approach to climate change. After all, if ‘nature positive’ isn’t easily understandable, then how can it be easily implementable?

In particular, the lack of any clear definition within the policy opens a door for the greenwashing of development initiatives. As a consequence, this could see the government engaging in superficial or tokenistic green practices without genuine commitment to nature positive goals. In a time where urgent climate and biodiversity action is needed, nature positive programming is not a resource we can afford to squander.

Mitigating this risk starts with prioritising programs that promote sustainable practices, protect biodiversity, and enhance ecosystems to achieve positive environmental outcomes while also fostering economic and social progress. We need to develop robust monitoring and evaluation systems, transparent reporting frameworks, and clear performance indicators that move beyond simply avoiding harm to the environment, and instead, actively contribute to its restoration and regeneration.

We also need to see First Nations and Traditional Knowledge holders from across our region included in culturally safe and intentional co-design processes. For millennia, Indigenous and First Nations Peoples in the Indo-Pacific have adapted to changing environmental and climate conditions; utilising Traditional, Local and Indigenous Knowledge to establish nature-positive and resilient livelihoods. Without co-design processes in place, Australia risks imposing top-down colonial solutions that do not adequately consider the unique social, cultural, and environmental contexts of our neighbours, limiting local ownership and agency in addressing nature positive challenges.

If Australia wants to bolster progress on our international commitments, improve development outcomes, and meaningfully contribute to a ‘nature positive’ world, then clearer ambition, accountability mechanisms, and collaboration with Traditional Knowledge holders are where we need to start.

David is a consultant at Alinea International and the President of the Association of First Nations Australians in Development. He has 14 years of experience across the not-for-profit sector, and has a strong focus on international development policy and programming in the Indo-Pacific. David has expertise across environmental sustainability, climate change adaptation and resilience, disaster risk reduction, agriculture, and social inclusion. The Lab admires his passion for social change and environmental sustainability. ​

Julie Boulton
Sustainability Consultant

Achieving a nature positive world is going to be a monumental task. It requires a significant shift in how we govern, as outlined by the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Target 14 of GBF is particularly significant; states are to ensure that the multiple values of biodiversity are integrated into decision making at all levels.

To move from a nature-deficit world to one where we integrate biodiversity into all decisions means current decision makers need to fundamentally shift the importance and relevance given to nature. The 2023 progress report on the SDGs describes it well: “To fulfill Goal 15, (Life on Land), a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with nature is essential, along with accelerated action to address the root causes of these interconnected crises and better recognition of the tremendous value of nature.”

This transformative worldview goes much further than “consider[ing] climate risk in all bilateral and regional Development Partnership Plans”. Nature is broader than climate and nature positive requires doing (much) more than adapting or mitigating. Taking decisions to actively halt and reverse nature loss might require nature becoming the priority for all programs, perhaps even becoming the overriding purpose of the development program, (not one of many, competing, objectives).

Between now and next October, when Australia hosts the first Global Nature Positive Summit, and as the Australian Government works to reform our own national environmental laws, DFAT needs to identify exactly what it means by its commitment to “supporting our partners to protect biodiversity and achieve a nature-positive world.” Our Pacific neighbours - and our own environment - can’t afford nature positive becoming yet another global buzzword in a (bad) game of development bingo.

Julie is an expert strategist and storyteller. Having worked within AusAID, DFAT, NGOs and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, she has a wealth of knowledge on development, frameworks for sustainability and the SDGs. If her bright and bubbly website doesn’t give it away, she’s an innovator who’s changing things up. Her depth of knowledge means she’s a great sounding board for the Lab.

Read more