‘By destroying nature we destroy ourselves’

handshake between human hand and plant hand
Act now: humans must reset their relationship with nature Credit: Getty

Loss of nature carries a huge economic cost, but embracing it as a solution pays handsome dividends

Paul Polman
Co-founder of Imagine and former chief executive of Unilever

The coronavirus might have its origins in the caves of Yunnan province, but make no mistake: nature did not create this crisis, we did. When we encroach on the natural world, we do more than cause environmental damage. The huge economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic is an illustration of a larger truth: we pay dearly when we destroy nature. 

The emergence of Covid-19 might have appeared an act of nature, but it was entirely predictable. David Quammen explained why in his prophetic book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, published in 2012. “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Protecting coasts: we must safeguard and restore reefs and salt marshes Credit: Getty

New diseases, however, are just the beginning. From coastal erosion to the decline of natural resources such as fisheries and forests, the loss of nature carries a huge economic cost. WWF, the international conservation non-governmental organisation, estimates that the total figure over the next 30 years could be as much as £8trn. 

While some may disagree with the moral imperative to preserve the natural world, and the global commons, there can be no disagreement on the economic imperative of doing so, or the urgency of acting with speed and at scale. The economy, after all, is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature – not the other way around. And we are bankrupting it. 

The more important question, therefore, is what we can do. There are, I think, two answers – and neither will succeed without the other.  

The first is that we need to reset our relationship with nature by valuing it as the indispensable resource that it is. Rather than destroying our natural world, we need to apply “nature-based solutions” to our greatest challenges and create more robust resilience to systemic shocks in the future. Examples include the restoration of forests, wetlands and peatlands in our countryside to help regulate water supply and protect communities from floods and landslides. 

Other approaches include protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems such as reefs and salt marshes, which guard coasts from storm surges and erosion. For centuries, we have encroached on natural habitats, but through collective action we can help turn back that tide. 

If we are to resolve the climate crisis, reduce inequality, maintain the wealth of nations and feed a growing global population, we must protect, restore and sustainably manage nature. It is no longer enough for businesses to be “less bad”, or even “not bad”. We need to be good. We need to actively reverse the damage we have done. 

Besides being the right thing to do, this also makes economic and financial sense. The cost of inaction is simply too high. The World Economic Forum’s Nature Risk Rising report has identified more than half of global GDP as moderately or highly dependent on nature.

Embracing nature as a solution is an investment, not a cost, and it is an investment that pays handsome dividends. Allowing a climate crisis to unfold is a risk that can be described, without overstatement, as existential.

The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) has shown that a $350bn annual investment in climate solutions would unlock $4.5trn in new business opportunities and save $5.7trn of damage to people and the planet by 2030. The World Economic Forum has estimated that the nature-positive economy could create nearly 400 million jobs in the next 10 years . 

Yet, with some exceptions, few countries and companies are integrating nature-based solutions in their strategies. They would be well advised to do so. 

What is missing, then, is my second solution: enough ambitious leaders who are willing to take bold action. Recent data suggests that the likelihood of our overshooting our Paris climate targets within the next five years has doubled.  As the summer fires in Brazil and Siberia remind us, we are running out of time to avert a runaway climate crisis. 

So 2020 must be the year that leaders across the world step up to act with courage and urgency. And without putting nature and nature-based solutions front and centre of decision-making, they will not be able to meet the 1.5C climate targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 or prevent a catastrophic loss of biodiversity in the “sixth great extinction”.  

Businesses have an indispensable role to play. First, they should get their own house in order, individually and collectively, by acting together across their value chains and with each other to become nature-positive and carbon-neutral – giving back to nature and the climate more than they take. Examples of this are under way in the fashion and food industry. 

Preserving the world: we must give back to nature more than we take from it Credit: Getty

In Malaysia, Nestlé restored more than 2,400 hectares of native forest along the Kinabatangan River by incentivising local people to plant trees. In Mongolia, the luxury fashion brand Kering reduced grazing pressure on native grasslands and lowered costs by teaching cashmere farmers innovative herding and packing methods.

Such initiatives are welcome, but there are too few of them. We need to expand and accelerate our efforts dramatically. Given the lack of effective governance so evident around the world today, we need more than ever courageous business leaders to speak up and advocate for the right actions and policies, to use their voice and commitment to derisk the needed, more ambitious political action.

I encourage all businesses to sign up to Business for Nature’s global campaign Nature is Everyone’s Business to do that and to join a powerful collective business voice calling on governments to reverse nature loss this decade. 

While 2020 will forever be remembered as a year of pandemic, what will follow remains –  for now – within our hands. 

We have seen what happens when we make nature our enemy. If we instead make it our ally, helping us to help ourselves and in doing so create healthy societies, resilient economies and thriving businesses, we will have learnt the greatest lesson from this terrible period. The result will be a world that is not just safer, healthier and more equitable, but one that is prosperous too. 

For more information, visit thegef.org