Bolstering biodiversity for economic and social sustainability
G20 Summit

Bolstering biodiversity for economic and social sustainability

Cristiana Paşca Palmer, executive secretary, UN Biodiversity, calls on world leaders to embark on a strategic plan for biodiversity beyond 2020


This year’s G20 summit provides another critical opportunity to address pressing global challenges. Japan, as host, has emphasised promoting free trade and innovation to achieve economic growth as well as leading discussions to effectively address climate change and ocean plastics.

Biodiversity plays a key role in this agenda. Biodiversity underpins ecosystem health and the provision of ecosystem services that are crucial for human well-being, including in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Ecosystems such as forests and peatlands capture carbon, and healthy mangroves and coral reefs provide effective protection against flooding and storm surges. Biodiversity can bring significant economic benefits; for instance, a 2017 study estimated that in the United States, by reducing flood heights, healthy coastal wetlands avoided more than $625 million in flood damages across the 12 coastal states affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Such numbers show that nature-based solutions hold tremendous potential in climate change policies. However, the role of ecosystems and biodiversity goes even further. Our natural system underpins our social and economic systems. If we do not halt and reverse our current trajectory of continuing environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, the global economy will suffer negative consequences on its own.

Thus, the different topics of Japan’s G20 presidency are closely linked through the central role of ecosystems and biodiversity for human well-being and economic development. For instance, more than three-quarters of the leading global food crops rely on insect or animal pollination. Between 5% and 8% of global crop production, with an annual market value between $235 billion and $577 billion, is directly attributable to natural pollination. However, pollinators are under threat, and this can lead to significant economic losses.

Conversely, addressing biodiversity loss will frequently lead to significant economic gains. Invasive alien species are globally one of the most important drivers of biodiversity loss. They also generate significant economic costs: the economic cost of invasive insects alone was estimated in 2016 at a minimum $70 billion per year globally, with costs very likely to increase in the future as invasive insects expand their ranges due to increasing human mobility and international trade.

Significant opportunities for economic growth result from eco-innovation that both protects the environment and advances human welfare. According to the 2017 report of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals opens $12 trillion of market opportunities in four core economic sectors: food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. These sectors represent around 60% of the real economy, thus pointing to the significant economic opportunities associated with developing nature-based solutions.

In 2010, governments around the world adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Nine years on, although we have made some progress in some areas, ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss continue largely unabated. There is an urgent need to step up our collective ambition to develop viable alternatives for the fundamental natural infrastructure of society. This will require visionary leadership and it requires unleashing green innovations and blazing new economic development pathways, for the joint benefit of nature, societies and economies.

Recognising the crucial socio-economic role of biodiversity is key for stepping up our ambition. Recent developments are very encouraging. At the request of the French G7 presidency, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced an analysis that highlighted the economic and business case of biodiversity for the G7 environment ministers’ meeting in May 2019. The United Kingdom is sponsoring a new global review, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, to assess the economic value of biodiversity and to identify actions that will simultaneously enhance biodiversity and deliver economic prosperity.

These initiatives are very timely. The current Strategic Plan for Biodiversity will expire in 2020. The parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity have embarked on a transparent and inclusive process for developing a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. As we come to the end of the first 25 years of action under the convention, the global community has a unique opportunity to exercise the leadership needed and take decisive steps in shifting pathways towards sustainability.

G20 leaders can use the 2019 Osaka Summit and its agenda to highlight the complex interdependencies between human, social and economic systems, and the need to develop integrated measures and solutions. And they can demonstrate the leadership needed by voicing their support for strong commitments and decisive action to start ‘bending the curve’ on the unprecedented loss of biodiversity in the coming decade.