The failure of the Copenhagen meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2009 left millions of people around the globe disheartened and depressed. Since then, doubts over the integrity of the science and/or the climate change scientists have been widely publicised. The financial crisis that hit the banking system in 2008 has reappeared in government debt markets, and the international community appears to have moved on from worrying about climate change.

Whether we worry about it or not, global emissions of CO2 keep rising as the world continues to pursue growth (largely powered by fossil fuels) as the solution to all our problems. In the last half-century, atmospheric levels of CO2 have gone from 310 parts per million (ppm) to a current level of 380. As a result, the EU has adopted the target of keeping below 450 ppm in order to stand a 50% chance of temperatures rising by not more than 2°C this century.

In 50 years, we have gone halfway to the point of no return (310–380–450). Every source of emissions has a cost, and every means of keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere has a value – which is where forests come in. Unseen and unheralded, strenuous efforts have been made behind the scenes to ensure that a deal on forests is delivered at the upcoming next major meeting of the UNFCCC in Cancún, Mexico.*

It was widely reported at Copenhagen that an agreement on forests was near to completion when the overall talks collapsed. In the jargon of the international circuit – as impenetrable to outsiders as a tropical forest – the POP (Paris-Oslo process) is working hard to inform the COP (Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC) to ensure that, on forests at least, a deal is done in 2010.

Even without the overarching threat of climate change, humankind would still need forests for storing and purifying fresh waste, generating rainfall, preventing erosion, maintaining biodiversity, supporting Indigenous cultures and providing daily sustenance for millions of the world’s poorest people. If you add carbon capture and storage to the list, it is obvious why conserving forests is the essential, most cost-effective and immediately available ‘first step’ in our survival as a species.

Building on momentum created by the Rainforests Project of HRH the Prince of Wales, a core group of 13 developed and 16 developing countries are now working together to build consensus on detailed mechanisms for curbing deforestation so that heads of state will be in a position to sign an agreement in Cancún. These mechanisms are now widely known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus allowances for conservation and protected areas).

These interim meetings have been held to overcome the underlying difficulty of achieving consensus amongst 190 nations with widely divergent interests. The participating nations hope to create a voluntary partnership to deliver a series of ‘no regret’ actions that will enable fast-start financing of US$4.5 billion to be disbursed ahead of a definitive, legally binding international framework that is still the target for Cancún.

The real excitement is in the ‘+’, since this is the first time in the UNFCCC process that value is being suggested for natural capital in the form of the ecosystem services of the standing forest. But these tortuous negotiations must also be seen in the context of where we are as a species at the end of 2010, the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity.

After almost 4 billion years of life on Earth, and some 160,000 years of human life, we are facing an evolutionary dead end and the first mass extinction induced by the actions of an individual species – humans. Although Noah famously rescued the animal kingdom “two by two”, if the animals had the vote they would now vote us off the planet. With up to a third of all species threatened by extinction by the middle of this century, we have become not only a danger to ourselves, but also a threat to Creation as we know it.

We have lost our way, and we need to find a new way forward. The more knowledge we accumulate, the less wisdom we seem to have. Our problems are global and require global solutions, but most political institutions remain focused on the nation-state. “Think globally, act locally” is a well-intentioned phrase, but we need to think globally and act globally on those issues that transcend national boundaries. Collectively, we need to change course in a way that departs from the historical narrative because, for the first time, we need to learn to live within limits.

Seen in this context, the financial turbulence we have experienced since the crash of 2008 is a wake-up call to do things differently and return to sanity before it is too late. In 2008, stock markets around the world fell 30-50%, with investors losing a staggering US$32,000,000,000,000 (yes, that’s 32 thousand billion dollars) in the greatest crash since 1929. As governments around the world scrambled to rescue banks and launch financial stimulus packages, the problem passed from the private sector to the state, with implications that are still being played out in Greece, the UK and even the US.

The model that delivers short-term gains for the few but passes losses to the taxpaying public when things go wrong has been exposed as financially, environmentally and morally unsustainable. The world is crying out for change. Not tinkering on the margins, but fundamental change. As Einstein said, “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive”.

Wars and recessions come and go, but once the forests and the ice caps have gone there is no means of bringing them back. Life will go on, but human life might not. The costs of action today are relatively small, but the costs of inaction are incalculable. In the Cold War the West spent up to 10% of GNP to protect itself against the threat of Soviet aggression – but what price are we prepared to pay in order to combat climate change and leave behind an inheritance worth having?

It has been estimated that the impact on the average American family of the cap-and-trade mechanisms now before Congress is in the order of US$80 per annum. Hardly a king’s ransom, yet it appears a price too high to pay. With feelings running high, Congress is split along partisan lines, with allegations of ‘anti-Americanism’ being directed at those wanting the US to join the rest of the world in the search for a more sustainable future.

We can put people on the moon and see the vastness of space through the Hubble telescope, we can unravel the mysteries of DNA and even create artificial life in a test tube; but can we look after our own planet? This is the ultimate question of our time.

Because our concept of wealth is based not on the services that we receive from the natural world, but on the goods we can extract from it, Nature is assumed to be both worthless and limitless. That is why, at this time of planetary emergency, tropical forests are still disappearing at the rate of 50 football pitches a minute, or more than 5,500,000 hectares a year.

Instead of treasuring forests for acting as carbon sinks, the global economy demands their conversion to palm oil, soya or beef (commodities that people do value), and this persists despite the fact that burning tropical forests accounts for 20% of all global emissions of CO2 – a figure that is on a par with emissions from the US or China.

The encouraging news is that, where the political will exists, billions, even trillions of dollars can be found to tackle issues that are deemed to be priorities, such as saving Wall Street, Greece or the euro.

Surely then, saving our home – planet Earth – falls into the same category?

As governments create trillions of dollars to ‘plug holes’ in their economies, the world is struggling to find the US$30–50 billion a year called for by the Stern Review to conserve the great tropical forests of the world on which human life depends. This figure is just 1% of what the world spends on insurance premiums every year (or 0.1% of the value lost in stock markets in 2008). The collapse in ‘value’ has been accompanied by an absence of values in the ordering of the world.

Rules that we inherited from our forebears are no longer fit for purpose. Concepts that worked well in 1800 (when the population of the world was just 1 billion) or in 1900 (when it had risen to 1.5 billion) are no longer applicable when we are 6.7 billion people heading for 9 billion mid-century, with patterns of consumption that would have been unimaginable even half a century ago.

During the 20th century, humankind acquired the ability not only to dominate the natural world but ultimately to destroy it – not just through the atomic arsenals of the Cold War, but through unbridled consumerism. If we go on converting natural capital into manufacturing and financial capital, without accepting the limits of the planet, then we may all become paper millionaires, but human life will come to an end.

Just as the warning signs of the credit crunch were there for all to see, the warning signs of the environmental crunch are staring us in the face: glaciers are shrinking, 90% of the oceans are now over-fished, great rivers like the Yangtze in China are polluted beyond recognition, and we have lost half of the world’s tropical forests over the last 50 years. ‘Business as usual’ is going to end in tears – so we need to change the nature of business into the business of Nature. Going carbon neutral is just the beginning. If we are to live truly sustainably, we need to go natural-capital neutral as well, only taking in one generation what the Earth can replenish for another.

Change will come. Of that there is no doubt. However, it will be far less painful if we can manage the process of change in an orderly fashion rather than have it imposed upon us from without. For the first time ever, humankind needs to impose limits on its economic activities, and not least because there is a tipping point beyond which ecosystems collapse – as witnessed by the cod fisheries of the North Atlantic.

Saving forests would buy us time to make the profound changes, both in our lives and in our economies, that are now required to prevent us passing the point of no return. If we fail to halt deforestation, mid-century targets become increasingly expensive and ultimately unachievable.

We need global solutions to global problems, and above all, we need leadership.

But we cannot simply place trust in our leaders and hope for the best. We need to take responsibility for our own actions and we need to take action, today. As Mahatma Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see.

That is why, in 2007, I formed Canopy Capital to recognise the services of the forests and drive capital to the canopy of the Iwokrama forests of Guyana. If it is worth paying electricity generators US$150 per tonne to perform industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS), surely it is worth paying something to keep the forests standing so that their natural CCS function (as well as all the other services of the forest) can continue? After all, if you think about it, forests are like a giant eco-utility – eventually, if we fail to pay the bill, the service will be suspended.

Climate change is the greatest threat that we have ever faced, but it is also the greatest opportunity: an opportunity not just to spawn new industries and generate millions of jobs, but to come together in common cause as never before. The road to Cancún is unlikely to have a dramatic moment of revelation like the road to Damascus, but decisions reached along the way will have profound consequences for us all.

More than 20 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay.”

Since she reached that conclusion, we have travelled halfway to the point of no return.

With any luck, the squabbling will finally come to an end in Cancún.

* The 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Cancún, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December 2010.

Hylton Murray-Philipson is an environmental entrepreneur who serves on the Advisory Council of the Rainforest Project of HRH The Prince of Wales.