Human ingenuity and entrepreneurialism have delivered exponential economic growth since the industrial revolution. In the last century, global output grew 20 times its original level, driving prosperity and quality of life, helping child mortality rates to halve since 1990 and average life expectancy to increase from 29 years in the pre-modern era to 73 years in 2019. However, while human advancement has allowed major progress, the ecosystems that have been quietly supporting this prosperity, providing vital materials, landscapes and climates for industry, farming and production have been severely damaged and depleted.
The 2020 Global Risks Report ranks “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as one of the top five threats humanity will face in the next ten years.” Therefore, as governments create recovery strategies following the pandemic, there is a critical balance to be struck to ensure the symbiosis between human progress and nature remains intact and supportive.
Industry has affected habitats around the world, changing landscapes, vegetation and animal habits. One crucial side-affect is that animal species now live closer to one another and to humans than ever before. This transformation of established ecosystems has heightened the risk of global pandemics as viruses from animals seek to find new hosts – humans. Indeed, research estimates that 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife. For example, in the Amazon, deforestation increases the rates of malaria, as deforested land is the ideal habitat for mosquitoes. Deforestation has also been attributed to outbreaks of Ebola and Lyme disease, as humans come into contact with previously untouched wildlife and an exotic animal market in Wuhan, China is thought to be where COVID-19 began.
As a result of the deeply interrelated relationship between prosperity and nature, one economic model gaining significant traction suggests suitability and economic recovery, growth and resilience go hand in hand in a cycle. For example, according to the Nature Risk Rising report, over half of the world’s GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature, therefore if governments invest in protecting ecosystems, significant returns would be generated on every level of the economy. Indeed, the report estimates that for every dollar spent on nature restoration, by 2030, at least $9 of economic benefits would be generated, 400 million jobs created and $10 trillion in business value generated each year. And this report is not alone in such projections.
A recent report by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that transforming farming and food production to a more nature-led approach could release $4.5 trillion a year in new business opportunities by 2030, while saving trillions worth of social and environmental damages caused by crumbling ecosystems. Further, the Business & Sustainable Development Commission found that investing in nature could facilitate $2 trillion per year of economic benefits through a shift to sustainable agriculture, mainly in the developing world.
In some countries, this movement is already underway. For example, in July South Korea announced a $95 billion economic recovery plan anchored in green investment such as electric vehicles and hydrogen cars, while Costa Rica has doubled its forest cover while tripling the size of its economy showing how better protecting nature can create many new, sustainable jobs.
This is a concept that is not only relevant on a macroeconomic level. Business for nature believe that a global nature-led recovery strategy could also help individual businesses generate cost savings; increased operational efficiency; increased market share; access to new markets, facilitate more predictable and stable supply chains and lead to better relationships with stakeholders and customers.
Indeed, these have led to 870 organisations – with a combined market cap of more than $9.2 trillion and financial institutions responsible for assets of nearly $118 trillion – to embrace a framework proposed by the G20-initiated Task Force on Climate-related Development (TCFD) that helps businesses incorporate nature-led activities within their existing processes. Such an uptake in sustainable behaviour in business seems to have been galvanised by the pandemic. Indeed, the Sustainability Trends Report 2020, compiled by Generation Investment Management (GIM) says the pandemic has boosted awareness of the urgent need for a decisive shift to sustainability and that the economic and social hiatus caused by the virus provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-evaluate how we live, work, and what we want or need to consume.
So how can industry embrace the concept of putting nature first in order to drive growth?
According to the Future of Nature and Business Report, the answer lies in the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The report states that 4IR technology will have an important role for over 80% of the business opportunities identified by 2030, representing nearly $8.7 trillion in value. Therefore, to build economic restoration based on a nature-led approach, policy-makers and businesses must activate technology that supports the natural world. For instance, the food and agriculture sectors have been slow to harness the power of 4IR technologies, but according to research by McKinsey & Company 4IR technologies could transform the sustainability of the food sector, improving production efficiency and input use optimisation (taking account of soil quality) through precision agriculture. For example, microbiome technologies can enhance crop resilience whilst geospatial analytics helps authorities to monitor deforestation and fishing using satellites and algorithms to track tree cover loss in near real- time preventing illegal logging and fishing.
Meanwhile in cities, building material accounts for half of solid waste generated annually worldwide, with total construction waste globally expected to increase from 1.3 billion tonnes in 2012 to 2.2 billion tonnes in 2025. However, 4IR technologies such as 3D printing and building information modelling could reduce this waste by 30% and 45%, respectively, whilst Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors can provide a virtual, authoritative platform to aid urban planning and help cities get smarter for the benefit of the habitats and well-being of the residents within them.
4IR technology can also help industry make smarter and more efficient use of energy. The IoT, for example, can be used to optimise energy efficiency from production to consumption while smart grids can enhance the penetration of renewables while maintaining grid stability. 4IR technology has also helped introduce biofuels such as microalgal biomass developed with advanced genetic mapping and analytical tools allowing the potential to cultivate crops in non-agricultural land.
Scaling these technologies so that economies are driven by nature-led technology will require a multi-stakeholder approach that includes government supporting infrastructure and policy, companies sharing data and intellectual property, and investors and donors providing growth capital, but by allowing this concept to thrive, the economy could be reshaped to allow sustainable growth and economic resilience.
The world is currently at a critical juncture for the future of societies. An unprecedented climate crisis alongside the global humanitarian and health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm of disaster that although devastating, could allow economies to be reset. As Carlos Alvarado Quesada, Costa Rica’s president explained; “If we want to build back ‘better’ we don’t have to look back … (and) be the planet we were in January 2020, we need to look forward to a whole other reality coming out of the pandemic.”
Nature has provided humans with the materials, tools and environment to thrive for thousands of years, it could also be the key to undoing the destruction we have wreaked upon it ever since.