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Terra Alpha Voices | Carter Ingram

Carter Ingram

Jane “Carter” Ingram has worked at the forefront of integrating nature into sustainable development across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States. She is currently an Executive Director at Pollination where she supports public and private sector clients focused on food, fiber and agriculture and other natural resource-based sectors with developing and implementing climate change and natural capital strategies and initiatives. Carter is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School for Foreign Service at Georgetown University and has served on the SNAPP Science Advisory Council, the Technical Advisory Council for the UNDP Equator Initiative, the International Working Group for the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures and has been co-leading a USG working group on Natural Capital Accounting in the United States. She is also a member of Terra Alpha’s Advisory Board.

Do you remember your first exposure to climate and nature issues? 

When I was little, probably 10 or 11, the whole back area behind my home was all forests – it was our playground and home to all these animals. But there was a lot of deforestation going on, so I was aware of habitat loss and nature loss. And I was really worried about that. I wrote a letter to our mayor about deforestation in our community – Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Fast forward to my PhD, I studied deforestation, the impacts on biodiversity, its interplay with climate, and impacts on people in Madagascar. And then spent a lot of time after my PhD trying to measure and value the way nature supports economic development, communities, and corporate outcomes. 

And why did you decide to focus on the market case for sustainability as opposed to the moral one? 

We all appreciate the intrinsic value of nature when we go into a big national park, go scuba diving on a coral reef, or just sit outside and see the stars; I think that’s just fundamentally who we are as humans. But we have to understand the other values that nature provides if we’re going to influence decision making – the economic values, the benefits for human health, for air quality, for nutrition. And the economic argument is what lands with people more than, “We have to do this because it’s good for the forest.” We need to do it because financially there are implications of not doing it. Increasingly the impacts on people of not taking action is becoming more clear. We see it from a climate change perspective, which you see all the time on TV, in the form of wildfires, hurricanes, flooding events, and droughts. Because nature and climate are twin crises. They amplify each other – and you need nature to solve the climate problem. There are things we have to think about together. And I think the [U.S.] government’s finally appreciating that. They announced on Earth Day that they’re going to begin natural accounting at a national level. It’s super exciting to me that nature will finally be on the balance sheet of how we make big decisions. 

You focused previously on sustainable development in emerging markets – are there lessons you are hoping to take from those markets back to your work in the U.S.?

There are. A lot of times we think, “What are the lessons that developed countries can teach emerging markets?” But there’s a lot that we can learn from emerging markets. Interestingly enough, a lot of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have committed to integrating nature into their economic development plans and their vision. There’s this big declaration, the Gaborone Declaration, which a bunch of countries signed, about integrating natural capital into their economic development. A lot of those countries have already started creating natural capital accounts ahead of the U.S. There’s a lot we can learn about why they view that as important and the benefits they’re accruing from that. 

I think we always grow when we learn different systems and we work in different systems. It helps us see connections, lessons learned from one part of the world to another. Costa Rica is a great example of a country that has figured out multiple ways to integrate nature into economic development. Costa Rica, so blessed with natural resources and ecosystems, is integrating all of that biodiversity and nature into their economic development plans and their vision for what their country can look like in the future. They have one of the first, what we call, payment for ecosystem service mechanisms at a national scale where they pay farmers and watersheds to improve land practices that then benefit water quality and water outcomes. Also, tourism is a big part of their economy, specifically nature-based tourism. They recognize that. So there are a lot of efforts throughout Costa Rica to protect nature because it’s so critical for economic development.

What is something you’re seeing that is most exciting, holds the most promise?

What’s exciting is this whole movement right now with U.S. companies. A lot have made really bold climate change commitments over the last few years. There wasn’t a whole lot of government action on climate change during these previous years, but companies didn’t really slow down. Companies like Microsoft, General Mills. 

General Mills just announced a bigger investment in expanding regenerative agriculture, and my understanding is a lot of that will be in the U.S. It’s an opportunity to change supply chains and connect big companies with farmers on the ground to figure out, “How do we connect these producers who could get compensated for implementing these practices?” Some research shows these practices can be beneficial economically for farmers down the road that might take some upfront cost to get there. These companies who have the resources to pay some of these farmers to implement those practices. If we can connect those dots, we can really make our agriculture and food system more climate resilient and more resilient in the long term over time. That can also help mitigate climate change because the potential of agriculture and nature to contribute to climate change mitigation is substantial. 

Do you feel a tension when trying to assert the importance of nature-based solutions with people looking just for efficiency on the climate change front, like with nuclear power or such.

That’s a great question. I think it’s not either/or; we need all of those things. I don’t think there’s one energy source that’s going to get us there. Quite frankly, the carbon removal technologies that a lot of people are hoping for are just not there yet at scale. We do need nature-based approaches to complement the other approaches we have for mitigating climate change. And we need nature for climate change mitigation and adaptation – but for so many other things too: pollination, water purification, air quality regulation, heat mitigation, all these things. So I think we’ve got to have nature as part of the solution as well.

Do you think that sometimes gets lost?

I’ve been working in this space for a long time and caring about the space for a long time. I would say I’ve never seen so much attention focused on nature, and nature at the nexus of business decision making. It’s never been on the radar as it is now. Businesses have often, from a philanthropic perspective, acknowledged nature by giving money to tree planting campaigns or cleaning up rivers and getting volunteers to help. But now, there is a real integration of nature into business decision making and thinking about, “How are we going to meet our climate change targets? What’s the role of nature-based solutions in that?”

You know, BlackRock, for example, just released a communication to the companies they invest in asking them to start disclosing their risks dependencies on nature, similar to their risks related to climate. So I think the tide is turning. And there’s a new task force – I helped with the initial stages of setting it up, the planning phase – it’s over 32 financial institutions and companies representing over $3 trillion in market cap. Its focus is called the task force for nature-related financial disclosures. It is basically a task force of businesses that are developing a framework to guide companies in how to measure, manage, and understand their financial risks related to nature loss. That is huge.

That seems like a game changer.

Absolutely. Alongside the government’s commitment to start accounting for the value of nature at a national level across agencies, embedding that into government action and decision making, that is huge. I do feel like things are really starting to change and not just in a philanthropic way, but really core to decision making. 

Is it enough? Do you feel like the momentum will create the change that needs to happen in the time in which it needs to happen?

That’s the big question. We really have to change what’s happening to the planet by 2030. From a climate change perspective, from a nature perspective, we need to step up the action really quickly. This current pace is not enough. Many people have said this: Nature and the climate will rebound; it’s people that should be worried because we’ll be the ones that suffer. Nature’s always going to rebound. It could take thousands of years. And we’ve got some promising development, but we need to pick up the pace.

If there were one message that you could get out to folks who don’t see this as important, what would you want them to understand?

I would want them to understand that nature and a functioning climate really underpin almost all of our economic decisions, our social decisions, and our lifestyles from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to our ability to plan for a weekend if it’s a trip, to go skiing or to go to the beach, all of those things are impacted by climate change and nature I would encourage people to pay attention to those connections.

And, finally, what advice would you give people working in the industry about how to go about making change and successfully move things forward?

Be solution oriented, be hopeful, look for possibility. I think it’s really easy when you work in this field for a while to become cynical, to feel like there’s no solution. I know some people who have focused their whole lives on studying a certain thing and pushing a certain thing forward. It doesn’t work and it’s easy to get down about that, understandably. But I think it’s so important to stay hopeful, stay open to new possibilities, to new solutions, and to be really collaborative. That’s the way forward. We’ve got to work together across sectors, across disciplines, across party lines. We’ve got to work together and find the common ground because there’s a lot of common ground, literally, that can bring us together.

Terra Alpha Voices highlights thought leaders who inform our investment process and impact
work. This series, created in partnership with author and photographer KK Ottesen, seeks to shed
light on the subjects’ diverse perspectives rather than their illustrious careers.

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