In Conversation With … Lian Pin Koh

As part of our coverage ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit and COP26, we’re asking some of the world’s leading sustainability researchers to weigh in on what outcomes they hope to see at the events. 

In this installment, we speak to Professor Lian Pin Koh, Director of the Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore. Professor Koh is renowned for his work in conservation biology, and serves as Editor-in-Chief of PloS Sustainability & Transformation and Climate Change Ecology. He is also a TED-Ex speaker and serves as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader

Professor Koh spoke to us about food security, carbon finance and the vital need for nature-based climate solutions.

*This interview has been copy edited and links to further reading have been added by the editor


Could you put the UN Food Systems Summit and COP26 in context for our readers?

COP26 is a hugely important event for the world to work out details of international climate strategies and actions that remain unresolved from the last COP, including carbon market mechanisms. COP26 is also important in marking the United States’ re-entry into the Paris Agreement. I think the world is eagerly anticipating that the United States’ participation in COP26 would help galvanise progress in climate negotiations.

The UN Food Systems Summit is important in its own way. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly affected international trade in goods and services, including the global food system. The UN Food Systems Summit will be a critical platform to surface these challenges and hopefully lead to a more resilient global food production and delivery system.

What is the significance of these conferences in the context of Asian agriculture and food systems? How might this differ from other regions?

Asia is where some of the world’s last remaining carbon-rich natural ecosystems are found. The COP26 negotiations would clarify the extent to which nature-based climate solutions, including forest protection and reforestation projects, are incorporated into the Paris Agreement through market mechanisms. If so, countries and corporations in Asia could become major suppliers and buyers of nature-based carbon offsets. This could have the benefit of not only helping to meeting our climate goals, but also creating new economic growth areas through carbon trading.

As a country that imports over 80% of our food, Singapore is vulnerable to any disruptions in the global food system. Therefore, the UN Food Systems Summit is significant for Singapore to continue to find solutions, develop partnerships and create new opportunities for safeguarding our food security.

What specific and concrete outcomes – especially where it comes to food systems, agriculture and/or their intersection with conservation  – are you hoping to see at these conferences?

One of the key imperatives in addressing the climate crisis that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently highlighted is to align global finance behind the Paris Agreement. I could not agree more with Secretary Guterres. As such, a concrete outcome that I hope to see from COP26 is for member nations to finally agree on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and lay down a clear set of rules for a global compliance carbon market that will incentivise both technological and nature-based decarbonisation and carbon capture solutions.

Carbon capture and carbon trading are facing some pushback at the moment. Could you speak about this and why you see it as something to emphasise at this year’s conferences?

Although nature-based climate solutions are promising, they are certainly not without risks. Earlier this year, there was a controversial media report on how one of the world’s biggest environmental NGO, The Nature Conservancy, may have been allegedly selling meaningless forest carbon credits to big corporations that do not actually deliver any additional climate mitigation benefits. 

This and other cases where there [has] been some pushback against nature-based carbon finance have to do with the challenges of ascertaining the value-add, or ‘additionality’, of a forest carbon project. In other words, it can be difficult to demonstrate how much carbon would have been emitted through deforestation, if not for the implementation of a carbon project. This is definitely an area of intense research at the moment to develop new and better ways of forest carbon accounting, leveraging new technologies such as satellite-based remote sensing and new techniques such as machine learning. 

Having said that, I think it is profoundly important for your readers to understand that while there are challenges and uncertainties in the value proposition of nature-based carbon finance as a mechanism to support forest protection and reforestation efforts (while also potentially helping businesses achieve their climate goals) there is absolutely no doubt that nature-based climate solutions – whether part of market-based or regulatory mechanisms – are an indispensable part of our climate mitigation and adaptation strategy.

Portrait from Wikimedia Commons under (CC BY-SA 4.0); photo by imaad whd on Unsplash.

Peer review declaration: This article is an interview. We do not put interviews through peer review, as they are by nature statements of opinion.

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