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Climate Leadership Series: John-O Niles and the Professionals who will Restore our Ecosystems

Jonathan Shopley | 16 April 2018 |

Jonathan Shopley speaks to John-O Niles, Director of The Carbon Institute, to discuss forests, water, national carbon accounting and the global need for talented natural capital professionals to deliver the Paris Agreement commitments.

In this Climate Leadership series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practice, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. Find out more about John-O at the bottom of this article.

Jonathan Shopley (JS): John-O, could you firstly explain how you’ve come to work at the nexus of climate change and forest conservation?

John-O Niles (JN): For me and I think for a lot of people, the original motivation for getting into this space was the love of nature, not the fear of climate change. Then attention moved from saving forests for nature’s sake, or for the inhabitants and their cultures, to saving forests for the climate’s sake.

Back then, deforestation and forest degradation represented 20% of global emissions. If you threw in agriculture, you’d reach one third of global emissions. Those profiles have changed a bit, but forests are still a big wedge. The land use sector has an enormous capacity to immediately reduce emissions.

JS: What do you see as your main role?

JN: My role in life is to populate the world with competent people who understand how to measure and improve our connection with forests. The Carbon Institute, at its face value, is about making more professionals better at measuring carbon.

Some people might ask “why bother?”

There are a lot of good reasons to do this – the most important one being that the hardwired elements of the Paris Agreement are around transparency of emissions and pledges. Everything else is essentially voluntary, including markets and the commitments themselves. So, for us to breathe as much life into this treaty as we can, we must fundamentally improve the measurements being made, not just at the national level but at the subnational, city, sectoral and community levels. We need many more people who are fixated on reducing emissions, starting by measuring them at the highest temporal and spatial resolutions.

We need to shoot towards negative emissions in as many sectors as we can. Reaching negative emissions has yet to be proven commercially in many sectors, but in the forestry sector it is viable at scale; the cost of doing it is straightforward and there are many co-benefits.

JS: So, what’s stopping it?

JN: There are two big reasons why we haven’t seen forests play a bigger role in lowering net emissions.

Firstly, most economic signals reward clearing forests and using the land.

Secondly, forest conservation and restoration is an acre-by-acre fight. This makes forestry harder to scale. It’s not a technology you can introduce, or even a single policy that works from one community to the next, and there’s definitely not an equal incentive to save forests for climate sake.

Every acre has a unique story and set of threats, and needs a different set of incentives. That’s why we must have people, in every country and in every forest looking after each acre of land around the world. And one of the big tools to defend forests is making arguments related to climate change. These aren’t the most important tools, but climate mitigation impacts can probably sway the outcome for some forests some of the time.

JS: As a company we work on a project basis to support forest restoration through carbon finance. Do you think this is the right approach?

JN: By itself this is not going to get us there fast enough. Also, challenges emerge if you protect only one part of the landscape. Yet, there are many more steps that have to go well in a landscape-based approach and it’s harder to monetise. However, I do think we should challenge ourselves to scale up. We need to be more ambitious, earlier, faster.

JS: I’d like to dig a little deeper into that. How do you feel about Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, which speaks to natural sinks, landscapes and forests? Do you think it will offer us a real opportunity? Are markets the right mechanism?

JN: I think we have moved from “carbon markets are the solution” to “carbon markets are part of the solution.”

When REDD[1] first came on the agenda in 2005, there was excitement because developing countries were talking about making commitments at a national level. Then in the build-up to Copenhagen, we thought there was going to be a new top-down carbon market, and all of a sudden we could imagine incentives commensurate with the size of the problem in the forestry sector.

When that market didn’t materialise, we went to plan B, which we’re still figuring out. We hope that a market can emerge, and there are already some bilateral and subnational markets and deals. However, the Paris Agreement is still mostly a transparency and shaming mechanism, but that’s not going to be enough. We need to use all the tools we can get our hands on.

One good thing is that the conversation around forests went to a higher political level thanks to the climate change debate. REDD was and is one of the beacons shining the way on climate policy. And markets were a big part of the innovation, as well as some of the perceived risks.

JS: Let’s talk about some of the barriers to progress. There are a range of non-intrusive satellite technologies that circle the earth collecting data on land use. It’s not a contact-sport and that data doesn’t deliver rewards to the stewards or owners of forests. I wondered how you felt about this – is this a good thing, or are we going to find that we’ve got too much data with little leverage on the ground?

JN: One of my favorite topics, Jonathan! We need to make sure that the right data lands in the hands of the right people who can do something useful with the data. We’re stuck with too much data, too much hand-waving and not enough data driving those acre-by-acre land-use decisions. That’s why I’ve evolved in my career from focusing on markets and policy to building a professional corps of people who can use information to engage in “contact sports” on the ground, to make the best climate argument for creating new forests or restoring them.

Robust data needs to lead to policies that support the production of sustainable commodities and energy. Ecotopia, a book written in the 70s, has some powerful ideas, such as women should hold most of the leadership posts, and sustainable wood should be a huge part of the economy. It’s a fictional world, but in reality, we could power the economy using a lot more sustainably-produced bio-fuels and forest products to replace building and infrastructure materials and even energy. If there was investment, we’d see the bio-economy generating profits, reducing emissions, and, as you said, becoming a contact sport by displacing some building materials or coal factories. But we have yet to see the right levels of incentives for, or profits from, bio-economy companies.

JS: We’re seeing many of our clients and other companies valuing nature, whether it’s the Puma P&L, or Dow stating how much money they’re saving by using natural catchments rather than water treatment plants. How do we get companies invested in ecosystem services, beyond those with forests in their supply chains?

JN: Most companies want to support projects in locations where they have employees and communities. They need to bring this hypothetical, global sentiment down to someone’s office, home and heart. You need to do everything you can to personalise it, then business leaders can figure out how to participate.

That’s where forests have an advantage. It’s much easier to build an emotional connection to a tree than it is to love a landfill’s methane capture project. It’s helpful to get decision makers personally and viscerally experiencing what their involvement does.

JS: I agree with you that the emotional connection is powerful, but there also needs to be a strong business model.

JN: The best examples allow businesses to say this investment led to this change in ecosystem services. Until some of these still-fanciful technologies come online, the clearest path to get to zero or negative emissions is through the type of work Natural Capital Partners does – through good landscape-level measurements and community-supported initiatives around the world.

The private sector is often engaged in ecosystem initiatives through the carbon cycle and water cycle. Forest ecosystems don’t just maintain natural water cycles, but provide soil stability, pollination and microclimatic benefits. If a beverage company sees diminishing watersheds as a threat to its ability to deliver products, the watershed argument obviously needs to be made. But we also need a workforce that can articulate economic pollination, soil erosion and resilience to flooding arguments. Bundle these natural service values and we may start seeing real incentives.

JS: And how can we have an impact on such water ecosystems?

Our impact on water comes from what we do on the land. Humans cannot directly impact much of the water on the earth, which is in oceans and glaciers. The area of human intervention, in terms of water restoration, runs from mountain tops to coastal ecosystems. There’s so much work that can be done to restore oceans and water health by focusing on mangroves, wetlands and riparian forests. I know Natural Capital Partners works with projects in these areas.

JS: What do you think the major drivers for the protection, restoration and enhancement of landscapes will be in 10 years?

JN: There are big companies that won’t be here in 10 years, and there are others we haven’t imagined that will come into existence. Companies need to be looking around the corner to understand why and how to engage in climate and landscape restoration. They should imagine themselves simultaneously making money, serving their shareholders and giving their employees a reasonable world in which to raise their children.

In 10 years, the use of data and the articulation of economic arguments to save nature will be better. The incentives, reasons for doing it and tools for doing it will be stronger.

Political drivers and the global economy will go up and down, but the Paris Agreement is not going away. It’s the largest piece of consensus in human history. And we also know it’s not going to solve climate change, but The Paris Agreement will go a long way to make sure everyone does their part. We’re already seeing the agreement evolve away from national commitments down to state, corporate and community commitments and actions. Its importance is only going to grow over time as the threat to nature becomes more pressing.

JS: And how will accounting support the Paris Agreement?

JN: In ten years, data will increasingly challenge national greenhouse gas inventories and ratchet up mitigation targets.

For instance, when nations make their commitments, one of the first decisions they make is which lands are even counted in the greenhouse gas inventories. However, if you’re not accounting for 20% of your lands, you’re not being truthful about what your country, state, province or company is doing in terms of impact.

I think that within the next 10 years, science and big data are going to challenge the human-led concepts of inventories and pledges. It’s going to become harder to play this game with just some of the carbon accounting pieces. And I think that’s going to help build momentum towards the community- and forest-level fights that need to happen every day.

About John-O

John O. (John-O) Niles is Director of The Carbon Institute, a collection of initiatives in education, research, and science managed by the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI). The Carbon Institute’s main focus is on supporting emerging academic carbon accounting programmes worldwide. John-O is a visiting Scholar and occasional Lecturer at the University of California San Diego, where he teaches the global carbon cycle and international climate policies. In 2003, he became the first director and lead author of the first edition of the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance standards. Following this, he became the Science and Technical Advisor to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, where he supported early efforts to develop the United Nations framework on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries. From 2012 to 2014, as the Director for WWF US’s Forest and Climate programme, John-O helped lead WWF US’s work on REDD+, United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, and capacity building. John-O was recently awarded a 2016 Henry Arnhold Fellowship for his work founding The Carbon Institute. He lives in California and loves to ski, play soccer and go on road trips with his two young boys.

[1] United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN REDD) programme: