Jul 15, 2020 09:03 PM

Opinion: Mother Nature Is Reaching an Irreversible Tipping Point

A worker plants a mangrove tree on July 8 as part of a wetlands restoration project at a nature teserve in Haikou, South China's Hainan province.
A worker plants a mangrove tree on July 8 as part of a wetlands restoration project at a nature teserve in Haikou, South China's Hainan province.

Akanksha Khatri is head of the Nature Action Agenda project at the World Economic Forum. This article is part of its latest report, the Future of Nature and Business, released Wednesday in collaboration with AlphaBeta.

Nature is declining at an unprecedented rate, with nearly 1 million species at risk of extinction because of human activity. Earth system scientists have warned that the Amazon rainforest, the world’s coral reefs and the boreal forest biomes are all fast approaching the cusp of irreversible tipping points with far-reaching effects on the economy, society and life as we know it. The consequences are just as alarming for business and humanity as they are for the environment.

The first report of the World Economic Forum’s New Nature Economy Report (NNER) series, Nature Risk Rising, highlighted that $44 trillion of economic value generation — over half the world’s total GDP — is potentially at risk as a result of the dependence of business on nature and its services. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse ranked as one of the top five threats humanity will face in the next 10 years in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report.

The window for action is narrowing at an alarming rate, while the cost of inaction is increasing. At the time of writing, the breakout of the Covid-19 crisis in early 2020 is tragically impacting the lives of millions and disrupting the livelihoods of billions of people around the world. Addressing this humanitarian and health crisis is a clear priority. And yet the impact of the crisis on livelihoods is already putting additional strain on nature.

Governments are redirecting funds away from conservation activities causing revenues of parks and nature reserves to dry up, and the rising rural poverty and reverse migration from urban areas is bringing additional pressure on wildlife and ecosystems. As the global focus turns from the health crisis to economic rebuilding and recovery, concerns for the health of the planet risk being sidelined. This would be a mistake.

Covid-19 is a stark reminder of how ignoring biophysical risks can have catastrophic health and economic impacts at the global scale. If recovery efforts do not address the looming planetary crises — climate change and nature loss — a critical window of opportunity to avoid their worst impact will be irreversibly lost. Decisions on how to deploy the post-Covid crisis stimulus packages will likely shape societies and economies for decades, making it imperative to “build back better” and not return to an unsustainable and dangerous business-as-usual approach. There is ample evidence that adopting green stimulus measures can generate even more effective economic and employment growth and build more resilient societies by aligning the global economy with planetary boundaries.

The World Economic Forum’s NNER series set out to highlight the materiality of nature loss for businesses, what transitions are needed to move towards a nature-positive economy and how businesses can be part of the solution paving the way for new opportunities.

Now, more than ever, a dire need for leadership from all quarters is evident. This report provides a pragmatic agenda for business to contribute to the development of practical roadmaps that address the most important drivers of nature loss and build a nature-positive future.

To successfully address this challenge will require tackling the indirect forces that underlay the drivers of nature loss — such as global trade, production and consumption patterns, governance mechanisms and the values and behaviors of society — something business alone can seldom do. Even as lasting transformational change will often require enforceable and coherent regulatory and policy mechanisms and a shift in societal values, business leadership can help shape the agenda and move the goalpost of what is politically possible.

Fighting climate change is critical — but not enough — to halt biodiversity loss and safeguard nature.

The global assessment report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted five main drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land and sea use, overexploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. Climate change is currently responsible for between 11% and 16% of biodiversity loss.

This share is expected only to increase, and it has the potential to trigger irreversible biome-scale ecosystem disruptions, making the decarbonization of the economy essential to limiting longer-term nature loss. Yet, as important and daunting as the decarbonization of the economy is, it is not enough if the other direct drivers of nature loss are not concurrently tackled. Businesses, through their operations and supply chains, directly impact nature.

Whether through changes in land and sea use, overexploitation or pollution, their activities can have long-lasting harmful consequences for nature. These drivers of biodiversity loss need to be addressed urgently to stop nature loss, and these are ones this report mainly focuses on.

Addressing the nature crisis requires a critical shift towards nature-positive models in three key socio-economic systems: food, land and ocean use; infrastructure and the built environment; and extractives and energy.

Analysing biodiversity threats with the higher granularity offered by their classification in the IUCN Red List, 15 non-climate threats to biodiversity emerge as the most important for business to engage with, based on three criteria: the importance of the threat to biodiversity loss; the role of business in causing the threat, and therefore the potential of business to address it; and the potential of the threat to disrupt business activities.

These 15 biodiversity threats all relate to three main socio-economic systems: the food, land and ocean use system; the infrastructure and the built environment system; and the extractives and energy system. Together, these threats endanger around 80% of the total threatened and near-threatened species identified by the IUCN Red List.

Currently, these systems represent over a third of the global economy and provide up to two-thirds of all jobs. Transitioning these systems to nature-positive models is necessary both to stave off the rising risks associated with the loss of nature and to meet the growing demands of investors and other stakeholders for business to fulfill a positive role in society. But a nature-positive model can also unlock significant benefits.

Responding to the profound social and economic crisis looming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic requires a reset of how we live, produce and consume to achieve a resilient, carbon neutral, nature-positive economy and halt biodiversity loss by 2030. This reset needs both to decouple our well-being from resource consumption to reduce the amount of resources we need, thereby sparing ecosystems as much as possible, and to decouple resource extraction from negative impact on ecosystems by better sharing with nature what lands and ocean we use.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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