Without action, post-pandemic recovery risks contributing to crisis of natural world

Posted on 14 July 2020

Governments risk failing to address the looming crisis facing the natural world as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and are missing opportunities to create the conditions to build more resilient, socially inclusive and nature-friendly economies. This was the message from speakers in the latest event in the High-Level Dialogues for a Green and Healthy Recovery series, hosted by OECD, WWF and the Environmental Defense Fund in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

Enormous potential exists to put nature at the heart of recovery packages and build back better, speakers said.

“It is very important that the message is clear – there is no future if it is not green and if it is not well founded in the limits of the planet, in terms of biodiversity and nature,” said Teresa Ribera, Vice President, Government of Spain & Minister for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge. “That is what we are doing in Europe to facilitate a proper green recovery.”

However, Europe’s approach with its Green New Deal – which includes the principle of “doing no harm” to the EU’s environmental objectives – risks becoming an outlier, said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, WWF’s Global Head of Climate & Energy. The growing economic crisis in the wake of the pandemic creates “a temptation for backsliding on environmental regulations”, he said, noting that “we have yet to develop a strong narrative that connects the economy with nature.”

This presents a fundamental challenge to mainstreaming nature in economic decision- making, argued Professor Patricia Balvanera, Co-Chair, Values Assessment, at the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Compared with climate change, which has penetrated our collective consciousness, “most of us don’t really understand the full magnitude and consequences of the nature crisis,” she said, although last year’s IBPES report, which warned that 1 million species face extinction, has begun to change this.

She also argued that “the dominant narrative of the role of nature in economic development” needs to change, from one where it is seen as “an inexhaustible factory of the food we eat, the ores we use to produce cell phones, the next vacation destination, or as a huge trash bin”.

The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of protecting nature. “The disruption of ecosystems and the exploitation of wildlife may well be the reason why we are in this mess to begin with,” said Shardul Agrawala, Head of the Environment and Economy Integration Division at the OECD Environment Directorate. “If we don't make transformative changes now, we are likely to see further declines in nature, bringing ourselves ever closer to natural reservoirs of disease and disrupting processes within ecosystems that help keep these diseases in check,” he added.

Agrawala suggested two immediate measures that governments could take to ensure that COVID-19 recovery packages recognise the importance of nature for human health: “One first step would be to screen and monitor the recovery packages … for their impact of nature,” he said. A second measure would be to “turn a sharper focus on reforming subsidies that harm nature.” He cited research from the OECD (conducted prior to the pandemic) that found subsidies for activities that are harmful to biodiversity are five times greater than total spending to protect biodiversity.

“We have a tremendous opportunity, now that oil prices are down, to look at subsidies on fossil fuels, and most importantly on gasoline,” agreed Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). While raising the price of fuel can have “social costs”, those costs are much lower when oil prices are depressed – and a number of developing seized the opportunity of low prices in 2015-17 to reduce such subsidies.

Bárcena presented the economic and ecological costs faced by Latin America and the Caribbean – a region containing eight of the world’s 17 most biodiverse countries – from unabated climate change. A rise in global average temperatures of 2.5C above pre- industrial levels could reduce the region’s GDP by up to 5% over the next 10-20 years, she said, while species abundance in south and central America has already fallen by 89% since 1970 and would be impacted further.

However, it is important to recognise that we have the tools and the knowledge to respond to these challenges, said Gabriel Quijandría, Vice Minister of Strategic Development of Natural Resources in Peru’s Ministry of Environment. “There are not many new things to do but to deepen the transitions we are already involved, and go faster with them,” he said, citing the shift to sustainable energy, to electric vehicles and in removing deforestation from supply chains.

“We need to incorporate conservation as part of the toolkit for solving development problems,” he said. He quoted figures from a 2017 study in Peru that found that every dollar invested in protected areas generated up to $40 in direct benefits to local people related to tourism. “Tell me if that’s not a good business, and a good option for recovery.”

Quijandría and Bárcena also emphasised the need to 'translate' the importance of addressing the nature crisis - and the many social and economic benefits of investing in nature - for key decision makers in areas such as finance. This would overcome silos that have been established between sectors, and allow climate and biodiversity goals to be intergrated into broader national plans. 
The third event in the high-level dialogues series focused on nature.