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A possible watershed moment for valuing nature

fish swimming near coral reef.
The Associated Press/Jacob Asher

In the midst of a food and fuel crisis alongside soaring inflation, inequality and conflict around us, it might seem like an ill-suited time to make a plea for more investment to safeguard biodiversity. Perhaps even more so, after the recent high-profile weeks of negotiations of the UN climate summit COP27 with similar calls for climate funding.

But it is past time to dismantle the misguided notion that nature is an infinitely available resource to be degraded without repercussion, or for its protection to be a “nice-to-have” bolt-on when funds allow. This could not be further from the truth.

With the UN summit on biodiversity, COP15, over the next two weeks, the world could be poised to take a critical step toward more closely aligning human interests with those of the natural world.

What is significant going into COP15 is the level of engagement and planned presence of the business and finance sector, and they are further ahead of some policymakers in ambition. The #MakeItMandatory campaign calls on governments to make it mandatory for businesses and financial institutions to disclose their impacts and dependencies on nature by 2030.  More than 300 businesses have signed up for this campaign. An emerging pattern of industries moving toward more nature positive behaviours could be the start of a positive “race to the top.”

Shifting our attitudes on how we value the natural world is long overdue. Our charitable benevolence to nature and biodiversity loss has masked some cool-headed truths.

Half of the global GDP relies on nature to various extents. Whole business sectors depend on the bounty of nature, from food and agriculture to construction and tourism and beyond. This reliance also means that these industries are also heavily exposed to risks from nature loss.

One million species are currently at risk of extinction. Given how much humanity relies on biodiversity, the threat we face from plummeting biodiversity loss is alarming. Biodiversity helps supply raw materials, clean air and water; improves the lives of one billion people who are undernourished; pollinates our crops and provides primary medicines for four billion people worldwide.

The fisheries industry, including marine farming, is also entirely reliant on marine wildlife. In Alaska, the snow crab industry is worth almost $132 million yearly, but its population dropped by 87 percent between 2018 and 2021. The 2022 crab season was completely cancelled as a result, threatening many local livelihoods.

For those who decry that there are no funds available in this age of austerity, the simple answer is that this is not the case. In 2021 alone, $700 billion was spent on explicit fossil fuel subsidies while the same amount is almost exactly what is needed to bridge the current finance gap to achieve the aims set out in the Global Biodiversity Framework, including the “30×30” target” — in other words, to protect and sustainably manage 30 percent of our land and seas for nature by 2030. This amounts to just 0.74 percent of the global annual GDP.

 We must immediately shift from “nature-regressive” investment toward “nature positive” (or at least “nature neutral”) growth. Alongside fossil fuels subsidies, the majority of around $470 billion of subsidies to agricultural producers is either price distorting or harmful to nature and health, as are many fisheries subsidies.

The impacts of repurposing subsidies would go well beyond only protecting biodiversity. It could help to reduce inequality within and between countries, given that fossil fuels tend to favour richer households and nations more broadly. Second, it could prevent more than $5 trillion in negative environmental externalities related to fossil fuel subsidies. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term, helping to create a solution to our current challenges rather than just a temporary reprieve.

The return on investment is immense. Forests generate an annual gross value of just over $600 billion, about 0.68 percent of global GDP. Restoring 350 million hectares of forests and landscape land will generate about $170 billion per year in net benefits and could sequester up to 1.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. For every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least $9 of economic benefit is expected.

We must stop leaving the vast value nature represents out of our accounting and instead, consider how much we count on it today — and in the future. Several countries are already making strides in doing so. Costa Rica, for example, has placed environmental sustainability at the centre of its political and economic policies, including running public transport on renewable electricity, reversing deforestation trends and creating a strong nature-based tourism industry with benefits across society.

In Africa, Namibia is among the continent’s best conservation success stories, with 44 percent of its land marked as a conservation area, serving as a cornerstone of its sustainable tourism industry.

In Hainan, China, UNDP has supported the conservation and sustainable use of agrobiodiversity, reaching over 5,000 direct beneficiaries, many of whom are women and ethnic minorities.

Initiatives like these can be further institutionalised by countries in their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). NBSAPs are the biodiversity equivalent of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), aiming to halt biodiversity loss and create nature positive societies and economies. These must be synced with the needs and efforts of Indigenous leaders, the private sector and consumers themselves.

Environmental protection and economic development go hand in hand. Nature is our strongest asset and our most powerful ally, and we are ultimately all counting on nature for a thriving future on a healthy planet. It is time to value nature accordingly.

Midori Paxton is head of Ecosystems and Biodiversity at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Tags Biodiversity Climate change Energy global wamring
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