In March 2019, the Treasury commissioned an independent, global review on the economics of biodiversity. This is led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta – Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge. The Review was asked to assess the economic benefits of biodiversity, and the economic costs of biodiversity loss; and identify actions which can protect and enhance both biodiversity and economic prosperity. It aims to shape the international response to biodiversity loss, including the successors to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and inform global action to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The final report will be published in advance of COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
An interim report has recently been published. This sets out the economic and scientific concepts, which will underpin the final Review which will present options for change. The full interim report can be found here, and further details of the project here. What follows is the introduction to the interim report:
Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all rely on Nature. We rely on Nature to provide us with food, water and shelter; to regulate our climate and control disease; to maintain nutrient cycles and oxygen production; and to provide us with spiritual fulfilment and opportunities for recreation, among many other examples. Put simply: without Nature, there would be no life.
Biodiversity plays an important role in the provision of many of the services we receive from Nature, known today as ecosystem services or nature’s contributions to people. Just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, diversity within a portfolio of natural assets – biodiversity – directly and indirectly increases Nature’s resilience to shocks, reducing risks to the services on which we rely. Biodiversity is an essential characteristic of Nature. The economics of biodiversity is therefore the economics of Nature.
But Nature’s resilience is being severely eroded, with biodiversity declining faster than at any time in human history. In the past four decades, there has on average been a 60% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, mostly in the tropics. The estimated number of wild bee species worldwide has fallen from 6,700 in the 1950s to only 3,400 in the 2010s. It is thought that one million animal and plant species (approximately 25%) are threatened with extinction in most of the animal and plant groups that have been studied. Current extinction rates are around 100 to 1,000 times higher than average over the past several million years – and they are accelerating.
The majority of ecosystem services are also in decline, including those that regulate and maintain our life support systems. Many of these ecosystem services and the ecosystems that provide them are irreplaceable. Critical ecosystems like the Amazon, which has already lost 20% of its original extent, are reaching tipping points. In the case of the Amazon, there is a risk it will shift from rainforests into savannah. Changes in land and sea-use, over harvesting, climate change, invasive alien species, and pollution of air, water, and the soils, are significant drivers of biodiversity loss.
Biodiversity loss is also intimately related to climate change. Indeed, climate change may become the major driver of biodiversity loss in the coming decades. Land use change which entails biodiversity loss – in particular deforestation – is, and could continue to be, a significant contributor to climate change. Protecting and enhancing biodiversity will help us address climate change, by helping both to mitigate climate change by storing and sequestering carbon in ecosystems, and to adapt to the inevitable effects of unavoidable climate change. For example, coastal ecosystems mitigate the increasing risks from natural hazards like floods and storms.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that successive international reports have warned that the current high rates of biodiversity loss pose a major risk to our economies and our way of life, and that urgent action is needed, including the recent Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risks Report (World Economic Forum, 2020), which ranked biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse in the top five risks. For the first time, all the top five global risks, in terms of likelihood and severity of impact, were environmental. – In addition to biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, the top five risks included extreme weather events with major damage to property, infrastructure and loss of human life; failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation by government and business; major natural disasters; and human-made environmental damage and disasters, such as oil spills.
Following millennia in which Nature was broadly resilient, a variety of compelling scientific evidence shows that humanity’s demands on Nature are outstripping its ability to meet that demand on a sustainable basis. The difference is a measure of the rate at which Nature is being run down. Simple estimates of our total impact on Nature suggest that maintaining the world’s current living standards with our current economic systems, fuelled by unsustainable production and consumption, would require 1.7 Earths.
Earth scientists have named the new age we have entered ‘the Anthropocene’, in which human activity has become the dominant influence on the biosphere. Economic growth has put such strain on the biosphere that economists are now being urged by environmental scientists to re-judge our relationship with Nature if we are to protect and enhance both biodiversity and our prosperity.
The Dasgupta Review (‘the Review’) will explore the sustainability of our engagements with Nature – what we take from it; how we transform what we take from it and return to it; why we have disrupted Nature’s processes; and what we must urgently do differently to enhance our collective wealth and well-being, and that of our descendants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already devastated lives and livelihoods around the world and will have deep and lasting economic consequences. At a time when we are all confronting a global pandemic, a review on the economics of biodiversity is even more relevant.
First, the health of our planet plays an important role in the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Land-use change has been identified as the leading driver of recently-emerging infectious diseases (Patz et al., 2000; Jones et al., 2008; Loh et al., 2015). Deforestation, conversion of primary forest for intensive agriculture and extractive industries such as logging, mining and plantations, and illegal wildlife trade are causing both biodiversity loss and contributing to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. One important factor is increasing contact among people and wildlife that carry zoonotic pathogens as human activity expands. This leads to ‘spill-over infections’ where pathogens are transmitted from animals to human hosts. The havoc that COVID-19 is causing underscores the importance of biodiversity for our health and that of the global economy, and ultimately the need for the human enterprise to live within the ‘safe operating space’ of the biosphere.
Second, as we emerge from the current health crisis, there will be an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by, and how we achieve, economic prosperity. In setting out a unified framework for thinking about the economics in a way that fully accounts for Nature and the risks that emerge from loss of Nature, the Review should be seen as a contribution to that reflection.
Chapter 3 of the report sets out the next steps for the Review, and feedback is invited and encouraged in response to the detail set out. One step will be exploring, analysing and testing potential options for change that can both enhance biodiversity and deliver economic prosperity
In relation to enhancing biodiversity, all readers of this blog are likely to suggest education as a strategy (in general terms), and perhaps environmental education in particular. Here’s a chance, then, to argue for recognition of the contribution that EE makes to enhancing biodiversity and wellbeing.