How a 'nature-positive economy' could reverse the catastrophic decline in wildlife

WWF’s landmark Living Planet Index warns that nature ‘in freefall’ due to the impact of humans, with wildlife populations declining nearly 70 per cent in less than 50 years

A clutch of sobering reports published this week that set out the threat posed to the global economy by nature and biodiversity loss have further bolstered the case for nation states and businesses to funnel investment into nature-based solutions that can slow escalating climate impacts.

A bleak edition of WWF’s Living Planet Index published this morning details how animal populations have declined worldwide by 68 per cent since 1970, a downward spiral that seriously threatens many of the ecosystems that support human well-being and the global economy.

Human destruction of natural habitats on land and at sea, climate change, pollution, invasive species and over fishing and hunting are responsible for the loss of nature “at a rate never seen before”, according to the latest edition of the long-running report, which provides one of the world’s most comprehensive measures of global biodiversity.

However, the frightening trajectory could be reversed if “urgent global action” is taken to conserve natural habitats and halt wildlife loss and deforestation, according to WWF.

The NGO argued that such a drastic reversal would require reforms to the economic system to acknowledge – and fairly account for – the natural capital that supports and underpins economic prosperity.

The current economic system is plagued by a “mismatch between artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates”, the report states, evidenced by the fact that produced capital has doubled and human capital has grown by 13 per cent over a period when natural capital has plunged by 40 per cent.

As such, the WWF said a resilient, ‘nature-positive’ economy must be established in the wake of the pandemic, an effort that will require multi-stakeholder collaboration and action across the private and public sectors.

WWF chief executive Tanya Steele said the findings included in the report amounted to “a desperate SOS” from nature. “We are wrecking our world – the one place we call home – risking our health security and survival,” she said.

Steele emphasised the UK had major role in leading the agenda for nature recovery as host of the next UN climate summit. “We are in a fight for our world: we now know what needs to be done, and paper promises won’t be enough,” she said. “In the UK we need to fast-track tough new nature laws that protect our wildlife at home and abroad, and with the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year the government has a huge opportunity to show global leadership in securing urgent commitments and action from world leaders.

“Only by putting the environment at the heart of our decision making can we build a safe and resilient future for nature, people and our planet.”

The report comes alongside a separate study published this week that further bolsters WWF’s central argument that private and public sector investments in nature can unlock major environmental, social, and economic benefits in the wake of Covid-19.

In a review of nearly 400 scientific studies, researchers from the University of Oxford have revealed that the majority of nature-based interventions – 59 per cent – reduce climate impacts such as flooding, soil erosion, and loss of food production.

The analysis of real-world interventions designed to bolster natural habitats also highlighted how nature-focused investments can generate immediate economic value for investors, with the potential to create jobs amid the current economic downturn.

“Although seeing nature-based solutions solely through an economic lens can undervalue their benefits, it’s also important to highlight their role in the green economic recovery from Covid-19,” said Alison Smith, study author and researcher at the university’s Environmental Change Institute. “In the UK for example, restoring peat bogs or native woodland has been highlighted as a potential source of green jobs.”

However, the findings also suggest that nature-based initiatives must be designed carefully, given that 12 per cent of the interventions analysed were found to have generated some negative climate impacts.

“Not all solutions are equally beneficial,” said Professor Nathalie Seddon, study author and director of the university’s Nature-based Solutions Initiative. “Evidence from artificial systems, such as tree plantations made up of non-native species, often found trade-offs, where some benefits are offset by adverse effects such as decreased water availability.”

Nevertheless, Seddon said the findings had underscored how there was a “wealth of evidence” to show that nature-based solutions should play a key role in countries’ climate mitigation and adaptation plans.

Meanwhile, those not sold on the huge benefits on offer from nature restoration can consider the risks associated with the current levels of destruction. The sheer scale of the impacts ecosystem degradation will have on human life was further emphasised this week by a bleak report from think tank the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), whose latest research estimates that environmental change could contribute to the mass displacement of more than one billion people by 2050.

Roughly a quarter of the world’s population live in the 19 countries most exposed to ecological threats such as water stress, droughts, floods, and cyclones, the think tank has warned, while half the world’s population will be exposed to high or extreme water stress, according to the group’s inaugural Ecological Threat Register report.

Regions with higher resilience, such as Europe and North America, are likely to experience an influx of climate refugees fleeing countries plagued by civil unrest due to worsening food insecurity and competition over resources, the think tank added, joining a growing library of studies detailing how climate change is likely to have grave geopolitical impacts.

The choice it seems is increasingly between a ‘nature-positive economy’ and a disaster-stricken economy. It is uncertain whether any other options are available.

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