Nature: our greatest ally
G20 Issue

Nature: our greatest ally

The world is seeking a sustainable recovery from the pandemic, and the answers lie in nature. G20 members, as the powerhouses of the global economy, must lead the way in restoring the natural world

As the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic mounts, G20 members are putting unprecedented amounts of public money into recovery. The first wave of action was, rightly, fiscal: protecting people, jobs and companies. Now, though, it is time to gear up the green recovery. As G20 leaders gather for their Riyadh Summit, they must prioritise measures that put conserving and restoring nature at the heart of our economies.

The pandemic has shown us that human well-being is closely linked to the health of nature, which is under assault from the triple planetary crisis of climate change, ecosystem loss, and pollution and waste. COVID-19 has claimed many lives and damaged economies, but the full bill of the triple crisis stretches far beyond the pandemic.

More than half of global gross domestic product has a high or moderately high dependency on nature. Yet climate change, unsustainable agricultural intensification and unsustainable resource use and extraction and so much more are eroding this economic base. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2018 found that land degradation and biodiversity loss were costing the world 10% of its GDP each year in lost ecosystems services such as preventing harmful nutrient run-off into streams or decreasing the effects of floods.

This is a make or break moment.

Answers in history

So, how can we combine the recovery from COVID-19 with restoring nature? There are some answers in history. In 1933, US president Franklin D Roosevelt signed an executive order allocating $10 million for emergency conservation work under the New Deal, which put unemployed Americans to work. When Korea was struggling with famine and a refugee crisis in the 1950s, the government restored forests and agricultural landscapes, which created hundreds of thousands of rural jobs. Today, Korea’s forest cover has doubled and the country has the 14th highest GDP in the world.

Since those efforts, the range of tools we can deploy has grown. G20 members, representing almost 80% of the global economy and the vast majority of its greenhouse gas emissions, can use those tools to seize the green transition opportunities in climate, nature, desertification, pollution and waste.

Nature-based solutions can provide a third of the climate action needed by 2030 – and it is encouraging to see these solutions among Saudi Arabia’s G20 priorities. Each dollar invested in ecosystem restoration can generate over nine dollars in ecosystem services and livelihood benefits. The business opportunities from transforming the food, land and ocean use system could generate $3.6 trillion in additional revenues or cost savings by 2030 and create 191 million new jobs.

Despite this clear economic argument, investment and incentive structures work against nature. Since 2010, only $20 billion has gone to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and over one hundred times more went to backing land-use activities that could at times be driving deforestation. Fossil fuel subsidies are over $500 billion annually; nature-based mitigation efforts receive a fraction of this sum. Our taxpayer money is going to the wrong places.

Green strings attached

We need nature-positive recovery packages. Bailouts with green strings attached. Investments in nature-based solutions, sustainable agriculture, renewables, conservation and green infrastructure. An end to fossil fuel subsidies and the introduction of more ambitious and aligned carbon taxes. We have seen some of these green measures emerge recently – from the European Union to Pakistan, from Barbados to Senegal. But we need to see a more comprehensive deployment of the stimulus packages in favour of a sustainable and green future.

Another strand is to mainstream nature and the cost of environmental degradation into economic valuations. GDP does not do this, so we must turn to indicators such as the Inclusive Wealth Index. In the last Inclusive Wealth report, the UN Environment Programme found that natural capital was falling at 0.7% each year globally even while produced and human capital grew. These are the kind of datasets policymakers need to make the correct decisions.

The coming decade can be a turning point, but only if green stimulus packages back the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. This means stretching nationally determined contributions to invest in nature’s infrastructure and using the upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to drive habitat restoration activities.

This pandemic has hit hard, but the aftermath gives us a window to create nature-positive societies that enable all of humanity to thrive. G20 members, as the powerhouses that drive the world economy, can lead the way. This starts with the Riyadh Summit with a stronger commitment to a healthy natural world.