Responsible Future

Can the pandemic spur us into action on climate change and conservation?

Bertarelli Foundation

Can the pandemic spur us into action on climate change and conservation?

Dona Bertarelli knows more than most what it takes to embark on an epic journey and to achieve a goal against the odds. In the winter of 2015–16, she was helmsman-trimmer aboard the world’s largest maxitrimaran, as Spindrift – the team she founded with her husband, Yann Guichard – attempted the Jules Verne Trophy, which is awarded for circumnavigating the Earth. After 47 gruelling days at sea, she became the fastest woman ever to sail around the world.

Yet sailing is only one of Dona’s passions. When she’s not on the water, much of her time is spent as the co-chair of the Bertarelli Foundation, the philanthropic organisation established by her family in 1998, which strives (among other things) for global marine conservation. Getting governments worldwide to agree on and commit to conservation efforts, never mind delivering on their promises, is a long and arduous voyage in itself, requiring more nous and patience than even Phileas Fogg might have mustered.

Until recently, the objective for conservationists was simply to ensure the topic was on the agenda in political discussions. This effort culminated in 2015 in the lead-up to the COP 21 meeting in Paris. ‘This was the first time the ocean took a seat at the negotiating table,’ says Dona, who in June 2020 was named as Special Adviser for the Blue Economy for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Before the Paris meeting, 23 countries also signed the Because the Ocean Declaration, which addressed the lack of focus placed on the ocean within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

'What is a fish worth alive rather than caught in a net?'

Yet, despite the Paris Agreement being hailed as a success, by 2020 191 countries had missed the goal of protecting 10 per cent of the ocean, the target set under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.5. Dona explains the reasons for this failure in simple terms: ‘Governments have not made enough commitments to create effective marine protected areas, and where commitments have been made, implementing marine reserves has been slow.’

Dona’s family has long had a connection to life-science research. In 1935, Pietro Bertarelli (her grandfather) became managing director of Serono, based in Italy, and over the next few decades turned it into one of the global leaders in the biotechnology sector. The company is perhaps best known for its pioneering work in the area of reproductive science, having developed the fertility-enhancing drug Pergonal in the middle of the 20th century. Pietro’s son, Fabio (Dona’s father), took over as chief executive in 1965, continued the business’s growth and moved its headquarters to Switzerland.

It was in memory of Fabio after he passed away that Dona, together with her brother Ernesto and their mother Maria Iris, established the Bertarelli Foundation. Today, it operates mainly in ocean protection and marine science, and life-science research. It has to date supported the protection and environmental conservation of more than 2.7 million square kilometres of ocean worldwide.

Yet, as Dona is quick to point out, the real work has only just begun. One of the most important challenges is reframing the way we look at the world’s oceans. ‘If we think of the ocean as an asset, we have traditionally looked through the lens of what resources are worth once extracted or harvested,’ she explains. ‘We have rarely valued the many “free” services which the ocean provides to life on Earth, like oxygen or absorbing carbon dioxide, when its biodiversity and ecosystems are left in place.’ In short, she says, ‘We must strike a better balance between protection and production.’

'This pandemic has shown us how fragile the balance between nature and our own health is.'

Arguably the clearest example of our current imbalance is fishing, which she refers to as ‘the last industry to harvest wildlife on a massive scale’. Looking again at intergovernmental targets, she notes: ‘Not only have we failed to reach Aichi Target 6 – to fish sustainably by 2020 – but things are worse now than when the goal was agreed 10 years ago.’

This, she explains, is a problem perpetuated chiefly by developed nations. Harmful fisheries subsidies, which unfairly support fishing that destroys ocean life and supports industrial fishing fleets as opposed to coastal communities, are a major culprit. Around 87 per cent of these subsidies support the fleets of developed states, while 90 per cent of fishers live in developing countries (by some estimates, three billion people globally rely on the sea for their food and livelihoods). ‘Just imagine,’ she says, ‘what these billions of dollars could do if reinvested to advance and diversify a sustainable blue economy. Governments need to start asking themselves: “What is a fish worth alive rather than caught in a net?”’

Despite the halting progress, Dona does see numerous reasons for optimism. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of them. ‘This pandemic has shown us how fragile the balance between nature and our own health is,’ she says. ‘Zoonotic diseases arise from the way we treat animals and exploit our land and ocean resources.’

The pandemic has also resulted in a reassessment of priorities, not just for many individuals but also for governments. This has led to renewed leadership, seen in the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental group with the central goal of protecting at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. Although it was launched as recently as the start of 2021, 57 countries had already signed up at the time of writing.

'I see an overall increase in partnerships, not only among philanthropists, which already existed, but between public and private sector, to drive change and innovation in conservation.'

As we embark on the post-Covid recovery, there will also be opportunities to reimagine our economies. What is known as the ‘Blue Economy’ has an important role to play in both climate strategies and in post-Covid recovery plans, according to Dona. She explains that when she talks of a sustainable and regenerative Blue Economy, she really means four key sectors: fishing, tourism, shipping and energy. ‘The opportunity here lies in diversifying the Blue Economy sectors to include more sustainable activities and reducing the impact of those four main sectors of the economy on the ocean,’ she says.

This could be anything from encouraging natural carbon sequestration by coastal ecosystems to developing a range of sustainable ocean-based renewable energy solutions. ‘If we achieve this,’ she adds, ‘I believe we will see a positive outcome where economic production and ocean protection can be combined, where we can improve food security and not only maintain but create new sources of livelihoods and at the same time support the ocean in its role in mitigating climate change.’

Lastly, the pandemic has also given rise to new kinds of partnerships and funding models. In the absence of tourism revenues, for instance, Dona has been working on debt restructuring, which can enable local investments in environmental conservation and the promotion of a Blue Carbon voluntary offset market. ‘I also see an overall increase in partnerships,’ she notes, ‘not only among philanthropists, which already existed, but between public and private sector, to drive change and innovation in conservation.’

However, perhaps Dona’s central reason for optimism is the emerging next generation, who are now taking on the fight and who are hyper-aware of climate change, biodiversity and the need for conservation. ‘Young people, the next generation like my children, are better informed than we were at their age,’ she says. ‘I’m feeling hopeful, because they are demanding a better legacy from us.’

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