Urs Dieterich is Managing Director of the Landscape Resilience Fund, a partnership of South Pole and WWF which supports climate-resilient sustainable farming and forestry projects in developing countries. In an interview, he reflected on his career path from student activist to conservation investor, and shared a roadmap for more climate-resilient food systems, supply chains, and economies.
What is the Landscape Resilience Fund and what does it aim to do?
Climate adaptation remains grossly underfinanced, even while extreme weather events continue to disrupt societies and supply chains. This, in a nutshell, is the big problem that the Landscape Resilience Fund (LRF) seeks to tackle. The LRF is an impact-driven, independent foundation co-developed by South Pole and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
With so little time left and so much to gain, we should all be doing more to prepare for the colossal climate challenges that are on the horizon. We already know that 10 percent of global economic output is lost each year due to biodiversity loss. 80 percent of the food produced in developing countries is provided by smallholder farmers who remain the most vulnerable to climate impacts, putting entire economies at risk.
The LRF provides loans and capacity building assistance for small and medium-sized enterprises working on climate-resilient agriculture and forestry in developing countries. By 2026, we aim to have mobilized $100 million for adaptation projects that create lasting climate and biodiversity outcomes while supporting vulnerable people in rural areas to become more resilient to the increasing droughts, floods, storms, heat waves or seasonal shifts that are driven by climate change.
How has the GEF helped the Landscape Resilience Fund?
What really allowed us to kick-start the development of the LRF was the recognition by the Challenge Program for Adaptation Innovation, announced at COP25 in Madrid. We were delighted to be among 10 winning project concepts, and to receive grant support from the GEF’s Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund. The support and credibility lent by the GEF opened many new doors to exciting partnerships for us. For instance, it gave Chanel the confidence to demonstrate bold corporate leadership and serve as our fund’s anchor investor.
Early stage support from the Challenge Program was also important because of the innovative nature of our fund, which is revolving. As a Swiss, tax-exempt foundation, no profits will be disbursed to funders; instead, repaid loans will be re-invested in other small enterprises, creating a self-sustaining financing tool for climate adaptation, climate mitigation, and biodiversity conservation. This “impact first” approach allows us to invest in promising small enterprises, even if they have limited track record or collateral, enabling them to access capital and helping to narrow the adaptation finance gap overall.
What are some of the projects you hope to support?
The LRF seeks to fund small and medium-sized enterprises and landscape activities in developing countries worldwide, including Least Developed Countries where climate risks are particularly high. Right now we are looking into projects and ventures primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
One example is Koa Impact, a Swiss-Ghanaian agriculture technology startup that is re-using cocoa pulp to reduce food waste, generate additional income to local farmers, and champion regenerative cocoa growing practices. They are already making a tangible difference on the ground and will scale their training in good agricultural practices from nearly 2,000 farmers today to 10,000 by 2025, aiming to reach 80,000 by 2030. We could not be prouder to support them on this journey.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I am energized by the connections and conversations with inspiring and dedicated entrepreneurs, public sector representatives, and NGOs around the world who have faith in the transformative potential of their work. It is also a privilege to work on something truly innovative, to blaze new paths and stand on the shoulders of the giants that have championed the field of climate adaptation and impact investing before us. Knowing that I am investing my time at work, not spending it, is immensely gratifying.
How did you get into this field?
Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to live with, instead of against, nature. It has always been intuitive to me that we cannot continue basing our prosperity on the exploitation of our planet. This is why I studied forest science for my undergraduate degree and became active in the International Forestry Students’ Association, where I soon took over leadership positions and organized student delegations to conferences like COP17 in Durban, South Africa, in 2011. This is where I first met my current employer, South Pole, and became fascinated by the idea of applying a business approach to sustainably protecting and restoring nature.
Another transformative experience was my Masters at Yale University, where I connected with many inspiring young people and academics. They were all dedicated to the idea that it is possible to create a more prosperous future for all if we build our solutions around what science tells us. This means fundamentally rethinking the paradigms we operate under. After Yale, I worked in renewable energy investing and then joined South Pole to develop meaningful and scalable impact investment vehicles like the Landscape Resilience Fund.
How else is South Pole working to support climate change adaptation?
Since it was founded in 2006, South Pole has focused on mitigating climate change, and our teams have developed market-based solutions that have helped reduce over a gigaton of carbon emissions. In recent years the company has shifted to also focus on adaptation, recognizing we no longer have the luxury of time to address climate change only by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why South Pole is working to mainstream climate change resilience. For example, South Pole is the lead partner of CapaCITIES, a capacity-building project on low-carbon and climate-resilient city development in India, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. CapaCITIES aims to support climate action in a number of Indian cities and states through training on integrated climate-resilient planning, innovative finance mechanisms, and climate-resilient infrastructure.
Together with BFA Global and industry experts, South Pole and the LRF have helped co-develop a new framework for using digital finance solutions to address climate adaptation needs. We also take part in the Global Adaptation and Resilience Investment Working Group, led by the Lightsmith Group, which has convened more than 300 private investors and other stakeholders to discuss practical approaches to adaptation and resilience investment. Finally, our team participates in the Global Center on Adaptation’s Youth Leadership Program to empower youth voices and innovation for a more climate-resilient world.
Is there someone you have met through your work who has inspired you?
Fabian Huwyler, a banker for nature and founding partner of Posaidon Capital, has brought together the mainstream finance and biodiversity conservation communities like few others. Papers he has co-authored have put conservation finance on the map of large investors and have inspired a group of forward-thinking organizations to co-found the Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation. His sincerity and passion have shown me that investors do care and that there is huge potential in jointly working on creating market opportunities for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. I told the media a decade ago, at COP17, that it was time for foresters to come out of the forest in order to develop viable solutions for forest protection. It was Fabian Huwyler who signaled that it was also time for bankers to come out of the banks and jointly build a space where finance and nature meet to build a more prosperous future for all.
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
The first disbursement of a loan by LRF is imminent. This marks an exciting milestone. I’m also looking forward to rolling out our activities with the Landscape Resilience Fund to more landscapes in 2022, with more investments that will make a meaningful difference on the ground.
Looking further ahead to 2026, as a $100 million fund, we aspire to have realized tangible outcomes for people and planet – from managing 200,000 hectares of land sustainably, to strengthening the livelihoods of half a million people. I hope that the LRF’s approach to public-private blended finance will inspire other multinational companies, development banks, and climate funds to invest in protective measures that ensure the climate resilience of their supply chains and the global economy.