As president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Razan Al Mubarak has the unenviable task of working against two major crises at once: the climate crisis and the global extinction crisis.
The IUCN is perhaps best known for its “Red List” of threatened species, the most comprehensive data source on extinction risk, and climate change is one of the main threats many species face. Yet even as warming unravels habitats, many of those natural systems hold the promise to help us fight climate change, she said.
“Climate change and biodiversity loss are indivisible, and they’re reinforcing crises,” Al Mubarak told Newsweek in an interview via Zoom. “We can’t solve one independent of the other.”
Al Mubarak has had an extensive career in conservation as head of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. She still serves as managing director of the nonprofit Emirates Nature, affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund, and is the founding director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. She was elected the IUCN’s 15th president in 2021, only the second woman to ever lead the group.
Now in its 75th year, the IUCN is among the world’s largest environmental networks with more than 15,000 scientists and policy experts providing information and support for conservation.
Oceans, forests and other ecosystems act as “sinks” in the world’s carbon cycle, drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Al Mubarak said that is why nature is crucial if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement’s limit of no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above pre-industrial levels.
Al Mubarak offers a unique perspective on the U.N. gathering. She comes from a prominent political family in the UAE, which is hosting COP 28. The UAE is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer and has appointed the national oil company’s chief executive as the COP 28 president-designate, a move that drew criticism from some climate activists, including Al Gore.
In our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Al Mubarak defended her country’s climate record and pushed back against those who downplay the importance of natural solutions for climate change.
Newsweek: I’m wondering how you express to people the nature of the multiple crises that we’re looking at?
Razan Al Mubarak: I always say that there is no Paris [Agreement] without nature. We tend to focus on one side of the equation, the emissions, and obviously this is significant. But what is also important is that we focus on the carbon sinks.
The climate change discourse is always underpinned by the needs for new technologies, but we tend to forget that nature is this great technology that exists today. It exists at scale; we know that it works. So, in terms of numbers, the promise of nature is that it can provide a third of our mitigation solutions that we need by 2030.
And when I say nature, I’m talking about the forests, I’m talking about oceans, and mangroves and corals—they all play a critical role.
Now if it’s that important, why hasn’t it been obvious within the climate change discourse? This is a narrative that we need to change. [Nature] hasn’t been there because it hasn’t been seen as fundamental. It’s been seen as ornamental, or it’s a nice thing to have. When some things are already there, we sometimes take them for granted, and nature is there, and it’s already absorbing half of our anthropogenic emissions for free.
So, the challenge is to move away from this myopic view of what climate action requires. But the worrying thing is that if we don’t act, the solutions that nature can provide have an expiration date. If we don’t meet the 1.5-degree target, most of the nature that we depend on will actually be lost.
What are examples of nature-based solutions that you find particularly exciting?
The first one I’ll mention is mangroves. Mangroves can absorb carbon five times better or more than tropical forests, which is so amazing. So, the global goal on mangroves is putting together a community of actors—government, private sector, civil society—to protect 15 million hectares [about 58,000 square miles] of mangroves by 2030 and secure financing.
On the coral reef breakthrough, we have a goal of protecting 125,000 square kilometers [about 48,000 square miles] of shallow tropical coral around the world with a financing of around $12 billion. And these two solutions can enhance the resilience of half a billion people around the world.
Recently there has been criticism of some nature-based solutions, especially carbon-offset forests or carbon-offset tree plantations. A recent study showed that in some cases those can do more harm than good. And Bill Gates during Climate Week in New York had some comments that were critical of using tree planting. What’s your perspective on that?
I’m surprised that nature fundamentally keeps being questioned while, as we breathe now, we depend on nature to provide the service. But one must take the time to understand where these challenging questions are coming from, and I think they come from the overall perspective of where nature falls within your mitigation hierarchy. You need to be able to reduce your emissions and move on a net-zero trajectory in addition to working on nature-based solutions. If you don’t do the first bits, then the nature-based solution can potentially be seen as greenwashing. So, it’s really important that we do the two together.
And then, within the nature-based solutions, of course there is tree planting and [there is] assisting living forests in a conservation effort linked to biodiversity. So, we have to really also understand that there are different tools, and there are some tools that are better than others, but it doesn’t mean you throw all the tools out.
I’ll give you an example. For a country like the UAE, we don’t have any forest, so for us planting is the best thing that we can do in our context. But in ecosystems that are thriving, then we have a responsibility to protect and enhance them as they are.
With the U.N.’s Conference of the Parties coming up very soon, what are your main objectives and the main opportunities to expand this nature-based approach and to make it more real in people’s minds?
I find that sometimes within the climate change discourse we spend a lot more time describing the scale of the problem and less time demonstrating actual and pragmatic solutions that exist today.
I’d like to see concrete actions led by countries to protect the world’s vital carbon sinks. Those could be forests, they could be in oceans. And I’d like to see a different sort of partnership. These challenges that we are talking about, they’re huge and they’re complex and cannot be addressed by one stakeholder alone. There needs to be a multi-stakeholder framework and partnership.
I’d like to see not only progress in the green economy, but also in the blue economy, ensuring that oceans and coral reefs have a prominent place.
What do you make of the criticism of the UAE as a host country because of the country’s deep connections to the oil industry?
I think 19 out of the 27 COPs were hosted in countries that produce fossil fuels, so this is not unique. But I think what is unique, at least from my regional perspective and my personal perspective, is the UAE has been and continues to be a leader in climate action. Of course, like all countries, we need to do more.
I’m from the UAE, born and bred here, everyone in my family used to be part of the oil and gas national company because that was our only source of jobs. That was, you know, 50 years ago. But today we’ve diversified away from that to 70 percent away from oil and gas, and so we want to continue on this transition.
Fossil fuels are a finite resource. With or without climate change, they are going to go, and so with that recognition we needed to evolve our economy away and diversify away from that one resource, and this is what we’ve been doing. Climate change ignites a more urgent transition to a greener economy.
I’m wondering how your family history influenced your decision to go into this area and take this leadership role with the IUCN?
I’m very privileged and grateful that I grew up in a home surrounded by a father, grandfather, siblings, all in public service, and so this was a very natural leaning that I had.
I also was always encouraged to do what I love, and I’ve always loved nature. I found solace in nature, but I’ve also found in nature and in the protection of nature an ability to hold onto my cultural roots. The UAE is a country that boasts a beautiful coast and some of the most beautiful desert dunes that have shaped our tribal system, that shaped who we are, it shapes our poetry. So I’ve had this affinity to nature for a very long time and was privileged to be born in a country with enlightened leadership that recognized that if we don’t protect nature alongside our development, we would lose sight of who we are as a people.