Lord Lebedev

It took just three years after the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl for my grandfather, Professor Sokolov, to take me to the site and teach me about the disaster’s effects on the local wildlife. At the age of nine, it was one of my first ever holidays. So it is no exaggeration to say that, because of him, mankind’s effects on the natural world have been a lifelong concern of mine.

In the years that followed, he took me on many such research trips — he was a Soviet scientist and environmentalist whose work took him to the farthest reaches of the planet. I accompanied him on his work safeguarding global ecosystems and promoting environmentally sustainable development. Sometimes, these zoological expeditions took us to Africa. Nothing could have been more fascinating to a young boy than seeing all these amazing animals in iconic landscapes.

Back then, the notion of “global warming” was confined to a worried network of scientists and the handful of policymakers that would listen to them. Today, the outcomes of humanity’s crimes against the environment are visible to us all. This year, I witnessed burning forests and the melting permafrost in Siberia, as well as ecosystems being scorched by pastoralists across Africa.

In Chersky, Siberia, there is a hugely ambitious scientific project to rewild Russia’s tundra, with bison, horses, goats and other animals, and possibly woolly mammoths — all to preserve the great carbon sink that is Russia’s permafrost.

When I visited this project, I saw the area’s sprawling flood plains were ablaze, burning on the riverbank opposite the science station. Record-shattering heatwaves had caused tinderbox conditions in the vegetation. The effect of climate change was literally in front of the people working their hardest to limit it. As we spoke to the scientists it transpired that their project had been approved more than 30 years ago by my grandfather, as head of biology at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He signed off the article on the foundational theory on which the project is based with the words: “For urgent publication.”

My grandfather had internationalist views of science. He was active in many global areas of conservation, from Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Programme to the UN’s Brundtland Commission. He, if anyone, would have supported global collaboration to protect carbon sinks from Russia to Africa. I am happy to follow in his footsteps, in whatever small way. As patron of conservation charity Space for Giants, I have worked to sustain Africa’s ecosystems, helping to protect them from poachers, land-grabbing and human-wildlife conflict.

I once had the privilege of sleeping out in the rainforest in the Congo River basin. This stunning ecosystem is one of the largest basins in the world, second only to the Amazon. It is also one of our strongest remaining defences against climate change. Unlike other large tropical rainforests, Congo remains a strong net carbon sink. Currently, it removes four per cent of the planet’s annual carbon emissions. These sprawling landscapes are nature’s very own carbon removal devices, absorbing it and sequestering it away.

Because of my grandfather, mankind’s effects on the natural world have been a lifelong concern of mine

This week it is COP26, arguably the most important environmental conference in human history. Today, I am hosting a discussion alongside president Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya to consider the crucial role Africa’s ecosystems play in preventing the climate catastrophe. It has long been known that Africa’s most precious landscapes are under threat but it is now time to draw a link between the moral imperative for conservation and the environmental one.

We are convening leaders from the state and private sectors to discuss market-based solutions to conserve these natural habitats. It is of the utmost importance that we preserve these iconic landscapes and, in the process, sequester vast stores of carbon.

I am extremely pleased that 100 countries pledged on Monday to end deforestation by 2030. It seems that, finally, policymakers are recognising the importance of conservation as a tool against the worst excesses of climate change. The deal certainly seems momentous: almost £14 billion of necessary public and private funds are to be funnelled into efforts to preserve the world’s largest forests; a £1.1 billion fund will be established to protect the Congo Basin itself. It is our responsibility now to hold these countries to their own commitments. Together we must recognise the central place Africa should take in protecting future generations from the climate crisis.

The event, Combating Climate Change by investing in Africa’s natural Carbon Sinks, can be streamed live at independent.co.uk/tv.