During the pandemic crisis nature suddenly feels much closer. Many of us regularly hear a symphony of birdsong from our make-shift offices at home while local parks are proving to be lifeline for our mental and physical health. As countries plan to ease lockdowns, parks and urban green spaces may be among the first places where people meet again and will be important to rebuild trust.
But we should not forget that human conflicts with nature helped to start this crisis. We know that infectious diseases including the coronavirus primarily come from wildlife and are increasing due to our destructive relationship with nature and climate change.
As we celebrate World Environment Day on June 5, this is a unique moment for us to reflect upon nature’s value for our economies, health and all Earth’s species. This reflection is also a necessity: As countries prepare for the recovery phase of the pandemic, nature-based solutions can create jobs, generate income, leverage private sector investment and protect critical ecosystems.
Latin America and the Caribbean is a biodiversity superpower
The LAC region is a biodiversity superpower holding 40% of the world’s biodiversity, more than 30% of the earth’s freshwater and around 50% of its tropical forests.
This capital provides us with vital goods and services including the air we breathe and the food we eat. It also generates immense benefits for climate regulation and life support. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that nature provides USD 125 trillion a year in free support to the world economy through pollinating insects such as bees, which are critical to global food production.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services showed that global ecosystems are currently absorbing 25% of emissions. Nature-based solutions could provide 40% of the carbon emission cuts needed by 2030 to limit global heating to below 2°C.
However, natural resources are under threat. Latin America still loses the most tree cover every year with the expansion of the agricultural frontier with an incalculable number of species being lost.
Globally, this destructive relationship with nature puts our own health at risk. Estimates by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans such as the novel coronavirus, Ebola, dengue and zika originate from wildlife. A recent study suggests that the next outbreak could come from deforestation in Latin America.
As we confront the pandemic and plan the recovery, we must not go back to the pre-pandemic world and unsustainable growth. Instead, we should look at how LAC can sustainably use its natural wealth to quickly power the recovery and lay the foundations for net-zero emission, resilient and inclusive economies.
How can nature-based solutions power the recovery?
Harnessing the power of nature-based solutions to protect biodiversity and confront the climate crisis will be fundamental to the recovery in rural areas and cities alike.
These solutions include the restoration and conservation of coral reefs and mangrove forests to enhance resilience against coastal flooding and reforesting hilltops to reduce landslides. They carry multiple benefits for building resilience through ensuring water and food water security, reduced physical risks such as flooding and reduced carbon emissions via carbon sequestration and avoided emissions.
They can also be cheaper alternatives in the long run and are more sustainable options than grey infrastructure such as cement for building sea walls. According to Stanford university, if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.
Nature can help to create jobs, generate income, leverage private sector investment and protect critical ecosystem services. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million people to plant trees and build flood barriers. Other research finds that investments in natural capital can create low-skill and fast-implementing jobs: Nature-based investments create nearly 40 jobs per US$ 1 million invested over 10 times that from investments in fossil fuels.
Valuing nature properly can unlock its potential
To unleash the power of nature for the recovery we need to first value it properly. Currently, its preservation is perceived as a cost despite its staggering value. The lack of adequate finance to date has also been a major barrier to implementing these solutions.
A recent estimate by McKinsey of the financing gap for nature shows that globally we require US$300-$400 billion per year to preserve and restore ecosystems, but conservation projects receive only US$52 billion mostly from public and philanthropic sources.
Converting natural asset value to financial capital can provide the resources to help us transition to a sustainable future and fill the annual finance gap in conservation and restoration. We can fill this gap in two ways.
First, we need to mainstream biodiversity and NBS across government, aligning policies across ministries to improve the efficiency of public finance and making better use of existing funds by piggy-backing on public spending on infrastructure or agriculture.
Second, we also need to attract new finance by crowding-in more private investment. Philanthropic capital can have a major impact by testing new models, seeding funds, taking risks and crowding-in capital. Private capital can invest in these new business models and support corporations that are mainstreaming biodiversity in their supply chains and infrastructure services.
Let’s celebrate World Environment Day by truly valuing nature
As countries develop economic recovery plans, it will be important for these stimulus packages to achieve multiple aims. Scarce funds should be used for projects that have the highest returns, create jobs and generate income. They also need to be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement objectives, national biodiversity targets and development and infrastructure plans.
Now is the time for countries, investors, and those who can offer support, such as MDBs and academics, to identify these projects that can create “multiple-wins” and transition us to a new growth model. These challenges are exactly what the IDB’s Natural Capital Laboratory is grappling with by helping LAC countries develop innovative projects to fight deforestation, invest in NBS, facilitate the transition to climate-smart agriculture, and preserve and restore biodiversity.
For World Environment Day 2020, we held a webinar with leading policymakers and natural capital experts to discuss exactly how nature can play a vital role to support a green and inclusive economic recovery. Let’s not miss this chance.