18 May 2023
MEET RALPH CHAMI
Our Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones talks to Ralph Chami, Assistant Director at the International Monetary Fund, about his work as an economist and his passion for wildlife.
Ralph, you are widely thought of as one of the world’s most innovative and sought after economic thinkers. Could you give us an introduction to yourself?
I never thought of myself that way, but if that helps the cause so be it. I’m a professional financial economist. I’ve been at the International Monetary Fund for almost 25 years Before that I was at the Business School at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. I’m now on sabbatical, working on building a new paradigm that is both nature-centric and people-centric, and positive.
What is the International Money Monetary Fund and what’s its role in climate change and biodiversity protection?
The IMF and the World Bank are referred to as Bretton Woods institutions that were created at the end of the Second World War. The idea behind them was to ensure global financial stability and sustained and shared economic growth going forward. The World Bank is on the development side of things, whereas the IMF is much more on the financial side, although we do a lot of joint work.
The IMF gives financial advice to governments – I think of it as going to the doctor and getting a yearly review of your health. It’s not mandatory for governments to follow that advice, but we tell them what we think they’re doing well, or not so well, and present the risks as we see them. If countries do get in financial trouble with the markets, as a member of the IMF they have the right to access funding. Think of it as a cooperative. Such funding, in the form of loans, comes from the resources contributed by the other members of the IMF. We also help with capacity development, through technical assistance as well as training for government officials. In a sense the IMF is the global monitor of international financial affairs and seeks macroeconomic stability.
Climate change is of course a huge shock to the global economic system. It’s affecting everyone, but particularly the most vulnerable countries because they have a very low ability to weather the impending storm. So, the IMF is very much involved on the climate side, especially when it comes to fragile States, low income and small island economies.
How can saving wild animals help save the planet from catastrophic climate change?
Everybody thinks of tackling climate change through reducing emissions, increasing carbon capture and planting more trees. However, the science is revealing that animals also play a key role in climate change mitigation, be it directly as in the case of the great whales*, or more indirectly through the way megaherbivores, like elephants, hippos, rhinos and others, interact with the forest and enhance its functionality. So, the flora and fauna interact with each other, creating this beautiful living world. It’s this complex biodiversity that is vital in the fight against climate change.
The work of Fabio Berzaghi and his colleagues, among others, has shown that elephants enhance carbon sequestration in the forest in the Congo basin by between 7 and 14%, depending on their population density. When I read that article, I was blown away. So how do they do that? It turns out these elephants, and other mega herbivores, have taste buds just like us. There are things they like to eat, and things they don’t like to eat. Luckily for us, they like to eat plants that are low in fibre and therefore low in carbon and leave alone are plants that are high in fibre, high in carbon. They are really forest engineers through the way they move around, forage and fertilise the soil, and just by leading their natural life, they’re enhancing carbon sequestration.
This tells us that if you really want to fight climate change using nature, you need healthy wildlife. It’s not just about planting trees – trees will do nothing without the animals and without the microbes. By using nature, we can reduce climate change by at least 40%. Born Free’s Senior Wildlife Consultant and Rebalance Earth Co-Founder Ian Redmond has been explaining to me how elephants and gorillas, through the way they live, are essential to the health of the forest. It’s nice to see that the science now is documenting all of this in a systematic way.
Why did you co-found Rebalance Earth and Blue-Green Future?
Rebalance Earth came about because their Co-CEO and Co-Founder Walid Al Saqqaf dangled an opportunity in front of me to work with Ian Redmond. I’m a big fan of Ian’s work and what he has managed to do, and it gave me the chance to get close to someone who knows what wildlife conservation and restoration on the ground is all about, because I remain a financial economist looking at it from the outside.
Rebalance Earth was, for me, set up as a proof of concept of the paradigm that I had built on creating a new economy with living nature at its core. You see, our relationship with nature has always been an extractive one. If I ask ‘what is the value of a tree’, most people think of the value of its timber. But what about the value of the living tree? Intrinsically it’s invaluable. But I’m talking about the value to humanity of the ecosystem services the tree provides by being left alone. If I ask ‘what is the value of a salmon’, most people think of a salmon served on a plate the night before at a restaurant for £30 or whatever, but I’m really asking about the value to us of a living and thriving salmon swimming freely in the ocean.
This all comes from the science showing us how fauna, as well as flora, plays a key role in the fight against climate change. Animals are a great ally. It’s just that the science talks about carbon units in a language that the rest of us don’t really understand. So I wanted to translate the science into the language that we do understand – namely the language of dollars and cents.
If we take the value of a living nature and translate it into dollars and cents, suddenly the value becomes visible in the market system that we live in. That is how I happened on this idea of building markets around living and thriving nature. And from that we can build the whole economy with living nature is at its core, so our economy works in partnership with nature, therefore enhancing everybody’s lives.
Rebalance Earth was established to prove the concept, but I needed someone who knows a lot about technology, that’s Walid, and someone who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to nature and biodiversity, that’s Ian Redmond. He can guide me when I say the elephant’s work or the gorilla’s work is worth this much.
Part of this is how to generate revenue to look after nature. Only a living nature can give us the value and therefore we need to protect it, look after it, enhance it. And, of course, you cannot do that without looking after the stewards of nature, the local communities and indigenous people. I needed someone who can keep me honest in that message. That’s what Rebalance Earth gives me now.
Blue-Green Future is the team that developed the valuation process. You need to know the science of the living system. We spent number of years sitting down with scientists, in the case of elephants with Fabio Berzaghi, and figuring out what the model would look like for a population of elephants, what the carbon flow would be over time, and build the financial valuation. It’s a group of professionals, experts in mathematical finance, macro finance people, sitting down and figuring out the optimal model to build.
We can also advise what it means for an economy, for growth, and for employment, when you move from an extractive relationship with nature to a regenerative relationship. That’s what Blue Green Future does.
What would your vision be for a more balanced future, and how can Born Free’s supporters and the wider public play a role?
I believe in a future where animals continue to live as nature deemed them to live – free and safe. The paradigm that my colleagues and I are developing is really about allowing nature to live for itself. For example, I was talking to a reporter the other day and she said, but I love nature. I said that’s good, but what do you mean? She said, well, I have a fig tree in my office. I chuckled and asked, do you really think if the fig tree could speak that it would say ‘I was created to sit in your office to make you happy?’ I don’t think so. I think the fig tree would say you should leave me where I was supposed to be, and you’ll get far more value from me as part of nature.
This idea of bringing nature out of where it was meant to be, putting it in a cage or putting it in your office, is not what this paradigm is about. It’s about leaving nature to live for itself.
When we calculate the carbon sequestration value of a living elephant, you can only realise that value if the elephant is left alone to live her full life as it was meant to be. The work of Born Free is about protecting wild animals so that they can live their lives in nature. But guess what, by doing that they’re also doing a lot for humanity. So, the supporters of Born Free are helping to ensure that those animals are living life as nature deemed them to do, and we get something in return. In fact, we get a lot more than we imagine.
And to finish, why did you want to get involved in the Beyond Trophy Hunting event that we held back in December? And how did you feel that the discussions on the evening went?
I was just honoured to be invited and to be with the four people that were there on the stage. I had the disadvantage of not having worked out in the field and have a lot of respect for those that are actually doing the conservation. My job there was to provide an alternative economic model.
The trophy hunting model is ‘I win, you lose’. And who loses? The animals are losing. But who gives people the licence to kill, to take a life?
I avoided the ethical part and how I truly feel about trophy hunting, and decided to focus on saying look, there’s an alternative model. If you leave those animals alone, they can make us a lot more money in a more sustainable and equitable way. The upside from leaving nature alone is much greater than what you get from its destruction, and that’s not just my opinion, the science supports this. So, I used the fact that the animals are great allies in the fight against climate change, a fight that now has a lot of economic value. Ensuring those animals are alive and thriving will bring benefits for people, not only morally and ethically, but financially. I wanted to show concrete examples of how this could work.
Thank you Ralph. Do you have any final thoughts?
What you guys are doing is the real thing. I feel like I’m a supporting act, and I will try to help any which way I can. To me it’s self-evident that a nature that’s living and thriving can only be good for humanity. After all, we are from that nature and as I always say, we need to come home while we still have a chance.
*Whales produce iron-rich faeces which provides the perfect growing conditions for phytoplankton. These creatures are microscopic but together have an enormous influence on the planet’s atmosphere, capturing an estimated 40% of all CO2 produced. Whales also accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. Researchers say that, when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere and surface waters and into the deep sea where it remains for centuries or more.