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A Positive Utopia - Interview with Christina Ender
Feb 22, 2023 | written by: Treedom
A Positive Utopia
What could our future look like if we take action now?
The climate crisis is a real threat and we can see its impact almost every day in our lives. So, is it already too late to do something about it? At Treedom we don’t think so! Supported by scientific data and input from international scientists in different fields, we show how our planet could change positively in 5, 10 or 50 years. Provided, of course, that we take action now. In a time of energy crisis, biodiversity loss and war; we give a positive outlook, spreading hope and inspiring people to take action for their own future by making their small contribution to a greener and better planet.
In the third interview of our “positive utopia” series, we are talking to Christina Ender. She was originally born in Germany, but grew up all around the globe, e.g. in Senegal or Togo. Traveling and getting to know new places and cultures has been part of her life ever since. She has worked and studied in Chile, the UK, Antarctica and Mexico. Especially visiting the Andes and experiencing the strength and vastness of nature intrigued Christina to have a focus on conservation. Christina completed a Masters programme in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford before moving to Kenya which has a strong wildlife and conservation industry. She has worked in the climate space for the past 10+ years; first for the private sector carbon development Wildlife Works, and then for Conservation International, where over the past 6 years she was responsible for Conservation International’s climate activities across Africa. Christina worked with Governments, civil society and communities to enhance and implement climate mitigation and adaptation activities. Her main focus during the last years was to closely assist the Government of Kenya with developing REDD+ nesting arrangements.
"From a climate perspective, increasing forest coverage and stopping deforestation is necessary to achieve the 1.5 degree target to secure our species and its wellbeing, as well as biodiversity on the planet".
Treedom: Can you please explain to our readers in simple words, what REDD+ is all about?
Christina Ender: REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Sustainable management of forests, conservation of forest carbon stocks and enhancement of forest carbon stocks constitute the "+" in REDD+. The idea was born in 2007 during the UN climate negotiations. The Western world bears the main responsibility for causing climate change by majorly exploiting and deforesting their forests over the centuries. These days, the biggest forests in the world are in Brazil, Indonesia or DR Congo. In principle, countries of the Global South have the right to use their resources as they see best fit; this includes cutting down their trees, selling them or making use of them in another way, just like Western countries did. In order to prevent that and protect existing forests, the idea developed that western nations would compensate such countries for NOT cutting down trees; thus, still offering economic advancement albeit by protecting standing forests. This is the main principle behind REDD+.
Usually, communities in and around the forests rely on wood, for example for firewood, building or selling. By protecting forests, you can generate carbon credits. So, instead of emissions that would occur if trees are cut down you can calculate these “would-occur emissions” by using the appropriate methodology for the specific forest. This type of credits is referred to as emission reduction. Another category of credits is about reforestation and enhanced forest management for carbon removal from the atmosphere, which are emission removals. Many requirements for achieving real emission reductions and removals were set at UN level. However, as progress at this level was taking some time, a voluntary carbon market emerged over the past approx. 15 years, which has recently seen the most transactions. Here, companies or individuals decide to buy carbon credits to make up for the emissions they generate or those they cannot eliminate completely.
Treedom: Why did you choose to work in REDD+?
Christina Ender: I chose to work in REDD+ because I love forests and I felt inclined to do something to protect the environment in an effort to make up for all the damage and exploitation done by humans. Forests and nature are not properly valued in our economic systems. Through REDD+ we firstly mitigate climate change and safeguard nature, but secondly are able to provide income through the sales of carbon credits for areas whose forests and trees are important for biodiversity, climate regulation and social wellbeing. My conviction is that by developing REDD+ projects and larger subnational or national programs you can protect important forests and other ecosystems while at the same time provide biodiversity benefits as well as sustainable employment and other social benefits, like health care or education.
Treedom: Is that last point also what you like best about it?
Christina Ender: Yes. The approach of REDD+ is able to address several challenges in one go: mitigate climate change, secure biodiversity and deliver social benefits. Moreover, it is an innovative way to generate and access sustainable finance, and thus also diversify income sources. In the absence of REDD+, for example, national parks and other protected areas either rely on government funding, which is often not sufficient, or on grants and donations, which are unreliable and unsustainable. Tourism is another important income stream that can generate finance for an area.However, as we have seen with COVID, this is fragile and can collapse at any time. REDD+, on the other hand, provides an additional income source for these ecosystems and communities that live within them. When tourism collapsed during the toughest times of COVID, it was the finance generated from REDD+ credits that helped conservation projects continue, keep people employed and generate other benefits.
Treedom: What was your latest work mainly dealing with? What were the big challenges and questions that you were facing?
Christina Ender: During the last 2 ½ years I have been working on something that is called REDD+ nesting. REDD+ nesting defines approaches, measures and rules to integrate individual REDD+ projects into the broader national systems. REDD+ was intended to be rolled out on a national level, however, the development of the REDD+ policy elements required to do so is lengthy, technical and expensive. The completion of that has in some circumstances been delayed. In the meantime, voluntary carbon projects developed independently and have so far operated in parallel to, and somewhat independent from, a national system. These projects use independent standards and methodologies which are not currently aligned with a national approach of a given country. This creates a mismatch between, for example, what a Government assesses and measures, and what these independent projects are monitoring and generating. In order to achieve environmental integrity, avoid the risk of double counting of emission reductions, or ensure clarity of carbon ownership, there is a need to harmonize all REDD+ activities within a country. It is also important to encourage project level activities to continue and for the regulatory and policy system to be in place to properly allow this.
In addition, countries are now required to meet and report back on their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) as part of their commitment towards the Paris Agreement. This presents an additional complexity as Governments need to generate these emission reductions. They need to come from somewhere, including the forest sector where REDD+ is in operation. So another question is how the voluntary carbon market interacts with the carbon market under the Paris agreement. Clarifying this and providing rules and regulations is what REDD+ nesting is about and what I have been focussing on, especially here in Kenya, together with different stakeholders. To draw a conclusion: REDD+ nesting is complex and novel – and remains work in progress.
Treedom: Does climate change influence your work on a daily basis? If yes, how?
Christina Ender: Climate change does not influence my work on a daily basis per se but it does on a higher level. We all know that climate change is happening and we need to act now and fast. Right now, we are experiencing the worst drought in Kenya in over a decade. Droughts threaten communities and their livelihoods so we try our best to push our initiatives forward to generate long term impact and prevent such climate phenomenons.
Treedom: What roles do trees play if we think of a better future for us and our planet?
Christina Ender: We all have experienced the impact of climate change to a greater or lesser degree. It’s important to acknowledge that poorer nations and people are more severely affected by climate change than wealthier communities. With examples such as the forest fires in Australia, the floods in Pakistan or the storm surges in the US, it is undeniable that the climate is changing in a severe way. Trees can help to mitigate that. On the most simple level, trees provide a microclimate that offers immediate relief and protection, for example when seeking shade under a tree on a hot day. There are measurements of several degrees difference between a forest understory and an exposed area of land. On a higher level, trees are the most readily available tool we currently have at hand for absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change. The bottom line is that increasing forest coverage and stopping deforestation is one of the key mechanisms that will contribute to achieving the 1.5 degree target, and hence help to secure our species and its wellbeing, but also biodiversity on the planet. We as humans are dependent on having a lively and diverse world for many reasons. In addition, there are also cultural, spiritual and health-related wellbeing factors that forests can provide which should not be ignored or underestimated.
Treedom: Maintaining biodiversity is one of Treedom's central goals. Why is it particularly important to build and protect biodiverse ecosystems?
Christina Ender: The more biodiverse the planet, the more in balance the entire planet is and the more protected we as humans are from extreme shocks caused by nature, weather and climate. We rely on biodiversity for all the essential functions on Earth, including breathing clean air, having food on the table, availability of medicine, pest control and many, many others. These ecosystem services provided through a biodiverse system are essential to life. Shockingly, we have been losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, yet there are commitments to strengthen biodiversity across the globe. To summarize, creating buffers and safeguarding healthy ecosystems by protecting biodiversity is extremely important.
Treedom: If we were to act right now and go full force against climate change and biodiversity loss, what would our planet look like in 2050?
Christina Ender: If we do act now, I believe that our planet can be a healthier place. I would like to see degraded land restored, key forest areas protected, and crucial watersheds secured. I am intrigued to see a change towards green cities and sustainable food production. I believe that a lot of how we know life to be now would need to change, especially our known system of excessive consumption. That probably will not be easy for society, but it is my hope.
Treedom: What specific things could change for the better, specifically in your research field?
Christina Ender: In terms of scaling REDD+, as I mentioned before, we are currently working out how individual projects can be integrated into a national system through REDD+ nesting. Achieving real and verifiable emission reductions or removals (ie. credits) has been a lengthy process and requires a lot of technical and financial resources. It usually takes several years for a project to obtain verified credits and this has proven to be a challenge. On the one hand, it would be helpful to streamline the process by, for example, deploying enhanced technology to fast-track carbon accounting. There are many steps and requirements a project needs to meet, before a real impact can be measured. What’s crucial here, however, is that the integrity and high quality of credits, and hence the climate outcomes, must be safeguarded! Emission reductions and removals must be real and verified, to the highest standard as possible. We don’t want to risk selling credits that actually did not happen. That’s also why standards and regulations take time, are costly and rigorous. In summary, there is a delicate balance to strike between streamlining the certification process and ensuring high quality of carbon credits.
Treedom: What things can each of us do to make our world a little bit better and to positively influence our future?
Christina Ender: One thing I encourage everyone to do is to become a lot more conscious about your consumption. The guiding principle should be: reduce, reuse, recycle. Being aware of that and starting with simple and little things – e.g. taking the train rather than going by car – can already make a difference. That way we can decrease the pressure on nature and the environment. Moreover, each and every one can use their voice and vote, for example, by joining movements or supporting politicians who are serious about implementing green policies. What I suggest personally is to stay informed. Read and inform yourself about what products you want to buy, where they come from and what environmental footprint they have. By supporting companies that try to reduce and mitigate their emissions, aim to protect biodiversity and provide fair wages and a safe work environment, every person can do their part. I believe there is a lot of influence consumers can put on companies and production models, and impact the market by being aware and conscious about their consumption decisions.
Treedom: What would you like our world to look like in 2050?
Christina Ender: I would like to see a lot of green cities with more green spaces, sustainable gardens and food productions. In terms of fuel and transport options I hope we have mainstreamed green alternatives that still take us from A to B, while not polluting the world. I’d like to see forests and biodiversity protected, and indigenous people and local communities fully respected and involved in decision making around those places. Generally speaking, there needs to be a shift on how we value and treat nature and I hope that this shift will have happened by then. In my ideal scenario, we should be treating nature with the respect it deserves as it is the foundation all life depends on. In a nutshell: we should honor the planet we live on and recognize that we are not separate from, but very much part of it!