Repairing Humanity’s Relationship With the Planet Will Be Cheaper Than Continuing to Let It Slide

The choice is simple: accept devastating wildfires, extreme weather, species loss, and disease outbreaks or secure a sustainable future at a fraction of the cost.

A demonstrator wears a bee mask during a demonstration for biodiversity called by the World Wide Fund for Nature in Paris on May 4, 2019.
A demonstrator wears a bee mask during a demonstration for biodiversity called by the World Wide Fund for Nature in Paris on May 4, 2019. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

All around, on the land and in the ocean, nature’s alarm bells are ringing. Wildfires rage in California as hotter, drier conditions make such events more frequent and more severe. One of the worst Atlantic hurricane seasons on record threatens coastal communities. And a coronavirus that jumped from animals to people late last year continues to drive a global pandemic that is responsible for nearly 1 million deaths so far and a global recession. All this seems like a new normal in what scientists refer to as the Anthropocene, the current geologic period dominated by human influence on the planet.

Now we can add another data point to the growing chronicle of humanity’s broken relationship with nature. According to the newly released 2020 Living Planet Report, produced by the WWF, where one of us is CEO, population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians declined globally by an average of 68 percent between 1970 and 2016. Such loss of nature is driven by unsustainable forms of food and energy production and consumption—the same factors that have fanned climate change and provoked public health crises, such as COVID-19.

But there is reason for measured optimism: These problems are linked, but so are their solutions. And if 2020 was the year when our broken relationship with nature revealed itself with immense global consequences, so too can 2020 be the year when humanity began to repair it.

The Living Planet Report provides a detailed look at the drivers behind biodiversity loss, and an examination of those also serves as a road map for restoring planetary health. Land use change looms largest in this equation, particularly the conversion of pristine native habitats, like forests and grasslands, into agricultural systems. In the Amazon, for example, cattle ranching accounts for 80 percent of the region’s deforestation. Deforestation in turn releases carbon into the atmosphere, robs species of their natural habitat, and pushes humans into closer proximity with animals that harbor diseases.

Ending this cycle needs to start with ending deforestation in tropical areas, where nearly 90 percent of intact forest loss since 1990 has occurred. One of the most effective interventions is establishing protected areas, such as national parks, wildlife refuges, Indigenous reserves, and other conservation areas. Once such designations are made, governments still need to secure the long-term funding necessary to make those parks effective. After all, a park in and of itself cannot keep out illegal loggers or safeguard sensitive biodiversity. That requires clear borders, engaged communities living in or adjacent to protected areas, rangers, scientists, maps of fragile resources, and educational signage. In some cases, it may also involve applying modern technology to the protection of Indigenous lands. All of this costs money.

For that, partnerships among governments, donors, foundations, and financial institutions—similar to the model that has secured long-term funding for 42 million acres of protected rainforest in Peru through Patrimonio Natural del Perú—will be vital. Such efforts to channel investment toward forests is a remedy both for environmental pressures and a source of jobs, revenue, and well-being.

Other strategies will also be needed to fully repair humanity’s broken relationship with nature. As the Living Planet Report makes clear, food production and consumption are also key drivers behind the loss of forests and other vital ecosystems around the globe. Governments could address this phenomenon by enacting policies to reward sustainable agriculture—as has been done in Costa Rica, where locals are paid to follow regenerative practices—and to greatly reduce food loss and waste. The world would also benefit from strategies that reduce the impact of livestock on land use, such as working with ranchers to sustainably manage grasslands. Last, ending the global trade of high-risk wildlife for exotic pets and meat can limit our risk to future zoonotic disease outbreaks while also ending a major threat to species populations.

These are big challenges. But we ignore nature’s warning signs at our peril. The pandemic has made that clear. Governments crafting plans for their post-coronavirus recovery have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the root causes of zoonotic disease spillover and turn the tide on climate change and biodiversity loss.

Effectively, the world has a choice. We can continue with the status quo and accept increasingly frequent wildfires, extreme weather, species loss, and disease outbreaks that require trillions of dollars to address each year. Or we can take the steps required to secure a viable future on Earth at a fraction of the cost. For example, the United States alone has authorized some $3 trillion in COVID-19 response spending so far; a study published in the journal Science recently estimated the cost of preventing another pandemic at between $22 billion and $31 billion per year. Difficult circumstances often breed invention, and perhaps the current moment will be the one in which governments, companies, and people everywhere take action.

Carter Roberts is President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility.

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