The Opportunity to Reverse Devastating Biodiversity Loss through a Nature-Positive Economy

Earth’s biodiversity is disappearing at an unprecedented rate—since 1970 wild animal populations have declined by 68% on average, and over 130 000 insect species have died out. Its continued loss would be dire for humanity, but a new report published by the WWF in collaboration with Dalberg sets out deliberate choices that if acted on by governments, policy holders and societies at large, could reverse this trend and prevent disaster. With stimulus funds circulating to boost economic recovery from the pandemic—now is the time to act.

Wildlife has historically been seen as the inevitable victim of development, with habitat loss going hand in hand with growing prosperity. But this could change if governments reallocated the estimated US$500 billion spent each year on subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity, directing it instead towards a catalytic boost for a nature-positive economy.

Roughly 39 million new jobs would be created through an economic model where innovators, entrepreneurs and employees apply their skills to creating a nature-positive world instead of one where nature is traded off with prosperity.

The proposed US$500 billion stimulus would reduce land-use, improve health, and add resources for governments. It is estimated that shifting to healthy and sustainable diets alone could reduce agricultural land-use by at least 41% while providing nutritious food for all, a move that would ultimately save billions in healthcare costs resulting from improved well-being. The stimulus would also set off a virtuous circle towards creating US$10 trillion in economic value and 400 million jobs forecast by 2030 for the nature-positive economy, as predicted by the World Economic Forum.

And, with the global economy emerging from the pandemic with large stimulus funds injected into recovery efforts, there is a unique opportunity now to prioritise nature’s recovery as a critical component of the new world order. Policy makers have seized the moment to address the climate crisis, but according to the report, this falls short of the mark. Climate change is accelerated by and in turn amplifies biodiversity loss, and both will need to be addressed to avert future crises. In fact, as the report explains, steps to restore biodiversity will be the best line of defense against climate change.

The unique opportunity to repair Nature

A milestone to halve the footprint of production and consumption by 2030 is presented in the WWF report  and is a main building block to put the world on a path towards living in harmony with nature by 2050. The WWF calls on states that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to commit to this goal, and link it to concrete sectoral targets outlined in the report, most notably for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, infrastructure and finance, which impact nature most. The report offers strategies to protect nature—and goes on to illustrate that halving our consumption footprint is entirely achievable.

“Many solutions already exist to protect our planet’s genetic diversity on land and at sea. But—we must employ them. Everybody has a part to play. Sustainable lifestyle choices are the key. Sustainable production and consumption is the answer.”  — António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Stop the unsustainable drain of natural resources

Biodiversity loss is driven by overexploitation, habitat loss, and pollution that stem from unsustainable production and consumption. Countless species have been driven to or near extinction. Over the past 60 years alone half the world’s rainforests have been cleared and replaced mostly with monoculture farms and pastures; humans and their livestock now make up 98% of mammal biomass on Earth; and a larger share of species is at risk of extinction than ever before. In the case of food crops, 75% of the genetic diversity is already lost. All this harms food security, human health and economic output, which affects the world’s poorest most.

At the center of the challenge is humanity’s demand for natural resources which is outpacing Earth’s supply. Demand has run down nature’s capacity to regenerate, driven mostly by the consumption patterns of those in high income countries. The trajectory—if we continue in this manner—is dismal.

Dalberg calculates the average consumer in high-income countries is responsible for deforestation equivalent to 27kg per day, enough to light a bonfire every night.

The drivers of biodiversity loss are often such that individuals try to make a living in ways that undermine their long-term prospects. Fish stocks are fished beyond their sustainable reproductive capacity; high-value hardwood tree species are felled at rates driving their extinction; factories and farms poison the soil, water and air with chemicals that cause harm to human, animal and plant health.

In all these cases, small producers working to earn an income or large producers maximizing shareholder returns as best they can, cause ecosystem collapses that undermine their own long-term prospects. All the while consumers the world over support this biodiversity loss by spending money on products where—often without their knowledge—destructive practices are present within the supply chain.

Most consumption has a biodiversity footprint as shown by the staggering range of products that use palm oil. Nearly 50% of all products in supermarkets have some form of palm oil in them: detergents, cosmetics and even pizza dough. But palm oil is also found in animal feeds, as grease for machinery, and in pharmaceutical products. And yet while it is entirely possible to produce palm oil sustainably, unsustainable palm oil is common in many value chains. The plantations on which this unsustainable palm oil is grown are a major driver of deforestation in many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, such as the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.

Solutions that change production and consumption practices

The report identifies and explores three key macroeconomic approaches that could reverse nature loss in a nature-positive economy and suggests that governments implement catalytic policies in these areas.

Firstly: to transform food production and diets and create a sustainable, zero-waste food system. As much as a third of produced food goes to waste, indicating that a more efficient food supply chain could itself make a large contribution to lowering food’s biodiversity footprint. But steps such as shifting meat consumption from ruminants like cows and sheep to other meats and plant proteins could make a significant difference by freeing up a large land area for wild habitats. Currently, these ruminants use two-thirds of all agricultural land while only providing at most an estimated 3% of calories and 12% of protein. In the case of fisheries, an all-time high of 34% of fish stocks are now overfished, and the energy spent on catching each ton of fish has increased drastically. Creating the right incentives such as protecting zones where fish can reproduce will enable fisheries to increase their long-term profits and national treasuries to reduce subsidies paid to the industry. As an immediate first step, governments should phase out fisheries’ subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity because they encourage overexploitation—which the WTO currently values at US$ 20 billion per year.

Secondly, to recognize the value of natural capital and the contribution of ecosystem services to GDP, and to stop overexploitation. Natural capital accounting correctly values the invisible contribution of ecosystem services to national output, and is best illustrated by sustainable timber production. Healthy forests provide many ecosystem services, from storing carbon to supplying water to protecting landscapes from erosion. Timber is also the world’s largest nature-based commodity with a market value of approximately US$250 billion. Much of this timber harvesting is unsustainable, especially where it contributes to deforestation in tropical areas. If the natural capital value of forests is taken into account, their value rises to as much as US$18 trillion. What is more, as much as 20% of the world’s population is ‘forest-dependent’, meaning that their livelihood and/or food supply is closely linked to forests. Governments will need to create regulatory frameworks that acknowledge the natural capital tied to forests, and to think of growth more holistically with the target of maximizing natural capital alongside economic capital.

And thirdly, to mainstream a circular economy and regenerative business models. A circular economy maximizes value by minimizing waste that could turn into pollution. In contrast, the current global economy relies on extracting ever more resources, and produces ever more waste in the process. The global consumer electronics industry alone is responsible for generating more than 50 million tons of waste every year, more than the weight of all commercial aircraft ever built. Much of this is the result of planned obsolescence, where products are designed for a short lifespan and minimal repairability, to encourage the consumption of new products. And, even though all electronics contain valuable raw materials like copper, iron and gold, only 20% of that waste is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill—often in the Global South—where it leaks toxic compounds into local water streams or, when burnt, fills the air with toxic fumes, endangering biodiversity as well as human health. In the circular economy model, products are designed for shared and repeated use, ease of recycling, and minimal use of fossil and mineral resources. Notably, this has been the default production model in indigenous communities all around the world, who have long valued nature more highly than industrialized societies.

Protect our future

The report’s concluding message is that further biodiversity loss is not inevitable and that it is within reach to produce and consume in ways that benefit both nature and humans. A few levers could put humanity’s consumption patterns on a more sustainable path—one that successfully halves humanity’s biodiversity footprint by 2030.

Many producer countries remain sceptical of such commitments, worrying that these will stifle their opportunities for economic growth. This is misconceived, as economic growth that depletes natural capital is not worth much in the long run.

To reverse nature loss, the world must protect and restore land, freshwater and marine natural habitats – but conservation measures alone will be insufficient without action to address the drivers of biodiversity loss detailed in the report.

The proposed US$500 billion stimulus would be a catalysing first step, with its promise of job creation and better incomes for farmers, improved health and wellbeing, and potential to significantly contribute to combating climate change and reducing the risk of future pandemics.

Citizens across the world will need to demand strong action. Already populations increasingly acknowledge nature’s intrinsic value and consumers are demanding more sustainability, and are willing to pay for it. Producers have started to respond to market signals and are taking steps to reduce their footprints. What remains is for policymakers everywhere to act decisively to deliver the biodiversity protection and restoration that citizens want to see.

Download the WWF report ‘Halve humanity’s footprint on Nature to safeguard our future’ here.

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