Investing in Nature and Climate Resilience

Blog 08 Jun 2023 by Haley Williams
The United Nations Development Programme’s Penny Stock on how coral reef data – especially local data from community scientists – is helping the UN and partners like the Global Fund for Coral Reefs to find and protect the ocean’s most important climate refuges #ForCoral.

Penny, you have a huge breadth of experience working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) all over the world. Can you tell us about how you came to focus on the work you do now for our oceans and coral reefs, and with the Global Fund for Coral Reefs?

I graduated in 1992 with my Bachelors degree right when the Rio Summit was happening – a major landmark for international environmental action. It was a huge moment, and I was inspired to travel to live and work in a high-biodiversity developing country, which is how I ended up living in Papua New Guinea. I came back home and did a Masters degree in human rights and international development, and began working with the UNDP  in 1998, initially for Capacity 21 and subsequently for the GEF Small Grants Programme. Because of my work on GEF project development and other initiatives, I’ve been able to work all over the world. I’ve now been working with UNDP for 25 years, in coral reef countries and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) for a lot of that time.

Working in a diversity of coral reef countries over two and a half decades –  can you shed some light on UNDP’s approach to this work, and how the Global Fund for Coral Reefs fit in?

UNDP recently announced our new Nature Pledge 2030. The Pledge places nature at the heart of our global efforts to advance sustainable development, recognising that nature underpins our lives, societies, and economies; nature is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We believe that it is crucial to support communities at every level, including Indigenous people, around the world to meet and implement their ambitious nature and biodiversity targets under the new global biodiversity framework. And this means that we must catalyze major shifts: at policy level, economically, and socially through the perceptions we hold and stories we tell about nature.

As the world’s most threatened global ecosystem, coral reefs take center stage in UNDP’s efforts to shift perception that nature is an asset to be protected and restored. The question is: how can we work with governments, communities, and the private sector to protect these natural assets for our collective future?

One key way forward is through blended finance. In 2020, UNDP along with other founding partners launched the Global Fund for Coral Reefs (GFCR) as the first global blended finance vehicle dedicated to coral reefs. 

GFCR has a signature theory of change: we unlock game-changing investments to conserve and restore the world’s most resilient reefs. We identify those reefs that have the best chance of long-term survival; coral reefs that are considered marine climate refuges and have shown resilience to the impacts of climate change. Then we mobilize blended finance to, first of all, protect and manage them effectively. Second, we work to transform societies and communities away from dependency on degraded coral reefs and away from destructive activities. This requires the empowerment of high impact sectors and businesses, at small, medium and large scale, to reduce drivers of degradation in priority ecosystems and spur investment in reef-positive solutions. Third, we pilot new technologies and approaches to restoration of coral reef ecosystems. And finally, we work closely with communities who are facing shocks and downturns to recover, to build up resilience for these coastal communities in the face of unexpected events like the COVID-19 pandemic, bleaching episodes, and natural disasters.

Through my role with UNDP, I have been involved with the Fund since conceptualization and during the building of the GFCR Coalition. UNDP now implements GFCR-financed programmes in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, and we are working on developing flagship GFCR initiatives in the Red Sea in Egypt with the support of USAID, and in the Gulf of Aqaba region for Jordan and Egypt. We are also developing the GFCR’s knowledge and finance accelerator, known as REEF+, to build capacity and mobilize investment for the rapid replication and scaling of successful solutions.

It sounds like having quick access to a large amount of coral reef data is pretty pivotal for several of GFCR’s workstreams. What role does data play in the success of your work, and how has MERMAID helped build access to the data that you need?

First of all we need to know where to work – which reefs make the most sense to invest in based on their resilience potential. We know that not every coral reef is going to survive climate change, there is a very high rate of loss projected by 2050. So, we need to be strategic about where we work. Coral reef data from platforms like MERMAID determines which reefs have the best chance of survival, which reefs have the greatest importance for the global biome, and which reefs are the most important to protect to ensure coral reef ecosystems can persist in pockets throughout our oceans even while many reefs fade away. In this way, data is important for the very survival of coral reefs.

At every stage of our work, we need data to understand what we’re doing that’s having a positive impact and what is having a negative impact. We need data to help ensure that what we say we’re going to do is actually getting done. MERMAID provides that ecological data, but we also need to look at social and economic impacts as well, which is why the GFCR monitoring & evaluation framework, developed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is so important – to think through what data GFCR has, where the gaps are so we can fill them, and to learn lessons for the future.

Has coral reef data ever surprised you? 

I was in the Maldives last year working on the development of our Global Fund for Coral Reefs program there, and in that discussion I was talking with a local partner about where the most resilient reefs in the country can be found.

It turned out through that conversation that where we thought the reefs would be least resilient, they were actually seeing evidence of resilience. There is a reef system close to Malé, the densely populated capital of the Maldives, and despite the fact that this reef has to cope with a huge amount of boat traffic, warming seas and other threats, it’s coping better than expected. Amazingly, some parts of the Maldives where the coral reefs are pristine and relatively untouched, these corals are showing much less resilience.

All of this just goes to show that this is not always a predictable science and is a fast-moving space. We not only need to use global science and large-scale studies like 50 Reefs and UNEP Coral Futures, we also must use local data that’s timely, relevant, and recent to inform local action. That network of local scientists and NGOs who are collecting this coral reef data, and then finding ways to feed that data up into the global arena through tools like MERMAID, is crucial. And, we need this data from not only remote and pristine areas, but also the most sector-heavy areas, where people are living and working.

What is your vision for the future, for the next 25 years of this work for coral reefs?

We need to be realistic – we know that by 2050 more than 90% of coral reefs may be gone, and that if we hit 2 degrees of warming then most reefs will not survive unless they’re located in climate refugia.

But I do have hope. That hope comes from the work we’re doing to protect Earth’s most resilient reefs, for example in places like the Gulf of Aqaba along the northern tip of the Red Sea. This particular area appears to have the potential to survive warming to 5 or 6 degrees, possibly more. It seems that this might be the last resort, and there may be others. If we can do everything we can to protect these refuges, if we can do everything we can to come out of the echo chamber around reefs and really elevate the importance of coral reefs globally for communities and economies, we can then work with mechanisms like the GFCR to scale investment in innovative approaches to save our remaining resilient reefs and use them to regenerate and restore degraded areas in the future. There is a chance that we can make sure there are living coral reefs in our ocean for our children and grandchildren.

There is also hope given the changes that I have seen since the beginning of my career in how we, as societies, value nature. Not just by the audiences reading this article, and the work and advocacy represented within your readership, but across many diverse stakeholders including academia, consumers, enterprises, and more. There is huge potential for private sector capital to contribute to save reefs. The private sector is part of the problem where activities drive degradation, but they’re also part of the solution, and we really need to engage with those groups to rethink the way that we do business. There have been leaps forward in recognition that we have a chance for a pivotal shift from destruction to agency - and this opportunity is now right in front of us.


Penny Stock is the Senior Technical Advisor for Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Marine, Coastal and SIDS, and is based in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. You can follow her and her team’s work @UNDP