This Friday marks the 46th U.N. World Environment Day, where governments, businesses and civil society agree to focus on a shared environmental challenge. This year’s theme is biodiversity and the “Time for Nature” (#ForNature) campaign is highlighting the importance of protecting healthy ecosystems, upon which all life depends. This year’s focus on nature should not be lost on those grappling with post-COVID economic recovery.
The ongoing pandemic has left governments and business leaders scrambling to quickly map and implement strategies for rebuilding upended economies. Rightfully, the immediate focus must be getting people safely back to work. But our collective pandemic-induced pause has given us a moment to reflect – not just on the importance of rebooting our economies, but also the kind of economies we want and how best to rebuild them.
There is a growing chorus of leaders across the spectrum of government, business and civil society calling for seizing the opportunity to marry economic growth with an accelerated transition to a net-zero emission, climate-resilient future. Increasingly, these leaders recognize the role that nature must play in a green recovery.
If we do not respect and protect nature, it cannot protect us.
We already see this playing out. Uncontrolled deforestation, unsustainable expansion of agriculture and infrastructure development have harmed more than 75% of land surface, destroying 85% of wetlands, bringing us ever closer to historically remote wilderness and wildlife.
The co-chairpersons of the U.N. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services describe a “perfect storm” for the transmission of diseases, such as COVID-19, from wildlife to humans brought on by our historic disregard for the importance of preserving and protecting nature.
This is not just a warning for future pandemics. The European Commission has noted that nearly half the global gross domestic product – $43 trillion – depends on nature. This is particularly acute for the building, agriculture and food and beverage industries, accounting annually for $7.6 trillion.
Our destruction of nature is increasing risks across our global food systems, coastal infrastructure, oceans and our own ability to continue to access fresh water. Shockingly, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and the destruction of nature are greater than those emitted from planes, cars, trains and ships combined.
Without a stable climate, there can be no stable economy. But while nature can contribute roughly 30% of the solution to climate change, it receives only about 3% of annual climate finance.
Part of the challenge in mobilizing adequate investments into nature is a fear by some governments that such investments will detract from the transition away from our fossil-fuel based energy system. To be clear, we must urgently and simultaneously scale up investments into restoring and protecting nature and dramatically ramp up efforts to decarbonize our economies. Getting to net zero emissions by mid-century as called for by the Paris Agreement requires both.
Governments are starting to respond. The European Commission is calling for $22 billion per year over the next decade to be invested in planting more than 3 billion trees, restoring 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of rivers, reducing fertilizers by 20% and increasing agricultural lands under organic farming management to 25%. Pakistan has approved a “Green Stimulus” response to the pandemic that focuses on youth job creation and protecting nature. There are several bills proposed from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress that would increase funding for nature, including a trillion trees bill proposed by Republican members of the House of Representatives.
Investors and businesses are responding, as well. Amid the COVID pandemic, the proxy season is shaping up to break records for shareholder resolutions calling not just for disclosure of climate-related risks but commitments for concrete actions. Environmental proposals are at an all-time high, and among those, climate change dominates, with 66% of such proposals now calling for actions rather than disclosure alone. More than 360 leading companies and organizations have formed Business for Nature, which calls for transformative change and concrete actions to mitigate climate change, promote sustainable growth and halt the decline of biodiversity.
The University of Oxford just released a study surveying 231 central bank officials, finance ministry officials, and other economic experts from leading rich and developing countries, which concluded that post-COVID stimulus money allocated to green policy initiatives would materially help the global community get closer to a net-zero emissions target, while bringing the best overall return on investment.
And for everyone feeling the effects of being cooped up inside while we do our part to flatten the curve, valuing nature takes on a more visceral meaning. A study from the National Recreation and Park Association shows that local parks and recreation agencies generate $154 billion in economic activity and support 1.1 million jobs each year in the United States.
There are immediate areas of focus that we can address. The sustainability and resilience of our food systems is one. Smart recovery and stimulus planning should include significant investment in regenerative agriculture, alternative proteins, sustainable fisheries, ag-tech and the digital infrastructure needed to support rapid sharing and scaling of best practices globally.
We must also develop ways to value the essential services our natural ecosystems provide every day – such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We now have better data and insights into the real economic value that primary forests, peatlands, mangroves, grasslands and wetlands provide in helping to keep our climate stable.
While we protect natural ecosystems, we must also encourage sustainable forestry and land management as part of an integrated approach. New processing technologies allow sustainably sourced wood-based materials to have superior properties, fire resistance and strength compared to today’s commonly used carbon-intensive building materials. This holds promise to dramatically reduce the adverse environmental impact of buildings while promoting green economic growth.
We need governments to create the enabling environments necessary to encourage a much greater scale of investment into both preserving and protecting natural ecosystems and sustainable land management practices.
COVID continues to test us in ways we have never seen. We must tackle the challenge in a thoughtful and holistic way. If we do this well, we can rebuild our economies and get people safely back to work, and at the same time lay the foundations for a sustainable and resilient future, underpinned by thriving nature.
Rick Saines is a partner at global climate change advisory and investment firm Pollination, and past chairperson of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA).