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Nature can still become central to the world's thinking in 2020

14 April 2020 – As resilience takes more prominence post-coronavirus, restoring nature will be of utmost importance, argues Dr Gemma Cranston, Director, Business and Nature at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

This year biodiversity was expected to move into the spotlight - with a 'new deal for nature' being laid out at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in China. Now 2020 can only ever be the year when Covid-19 changed everything - threatening and taking lives, making us live and love differently, and jolting our economic stability.

In light of the pandemic, October's Biodiversity Summit has been postponed, and its development of a new 10-year framework for biodiversity will have to wait. These goals and targets are needed to set the path for nature recovery, reflecting the reality that economies and societies are dependent on healthy natural systems. The unfortunate irony is that our impacts on, and our relationship with nature are in part to blame for the rise of infectious diseases like Covid-19.

Conservation experts have suggested Covid-19 most likely started at a market selling wild animals in China and it is not the first virus to have originated in wildlife populations: SARs, Ebola and Swine Flu all started with a virus being transmitted to humans from wild animals. With the loss of nature, such as habitat loss from deforestation, shown to increase rates of pathogen transmission, there is greater human contact with animals which in turn can lead to diseases such as Covid-19 spreading to humans

With more mouths to feed, a growing middle class and a changing climate, agricultural production is increasing to meet this demand. It is expected that by 2050 an additional billion hectares of land will be required - an area the size of Canada - or yields on existing land will need to increase through the use of fertilisers and pesticides; both of these contribute to the loss of nature.  

Protecting and restoring nature is critical to the wellbeing of society as well as for economic prosperity. Research indicates that $44tr economic value generation - more than half the world's total GDP - is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services.  No relationship or system can be based on the removal of resources or services without sufficient replenishment, and our prolonged activities are impacting the stability of the planet.

The devastating consequences of our actions on people and society all around the world are squarely coming into view. And the reality is that the more we delay, the greater the cost will be in terms of health, welfare and prosperity. With populations predicted to grow, demands on nature will only increase with worrying implications for food security, nutrition, health and climate change. This will also expose companies, financiers and governments to significant risk, leaving the global economy vulnerable to repeated shocks from interlinked crises.

It is clearer than ever that everything and everyone is interconnected, and the present crisis has heightened attention on the resilience of the food supply chain and the need to reduce risks. Times are changing and questions need to be asked. Could we see a new normal where protecting nature is an issue of business credibility with consumers, financiers and regulators? Or could security of supply cause some supply chains to spread out rather than concentrate on key production centres, impacting negatively on nature as we rush to rebuild, and potentially leading to nationalism and protectionism? 

Those organisations and businesses, like the Business for Nature coalition, calling for alignment and integration of nature into mainstream government policy should be listened to, and incentives should be offered for positive action on nature which supports circular business models and promotes financial solutions that restore nature. Successful businesses will be those that recognise we can't go back to business as usual and that taking a pro-active role in addressing their impacts and dependencies on nature offers the best opportunity to succeed in the challenging context of the climate and ecological crises, as well as post Covid-19.

We are already living and working in a new moment shaped by Covid-19, and while there is an immediate and urgent need to focus on the present crisis, we also have the opportunity to observe and interpret what has already changed. This can inform a vision of the future we hope to create, bringing together business, government and society to determine what a successful society and economy could look like. Resilience will inevitably take more prominence and restoring nature will be of the utmost importance. So, perhaps 2020 will be the year that nature starts to be central to our thinking after all. 


Visit the Business and Nature page to learn how CISL is working with businesses to safeguard nature.

Join a global, online event business leaders and international decision-makers on 15 June organised by Business for Nature: Building Business Resilience: How collective leadership will reverse nature loss

About the author

Gemma Cranston

Gemma is the Director of the Business and Nature team, collaborating with companies to identify strategic approaches to address their dependencies and impacts on nature. She is leading a team who are looking to amplify business support for ambitious global action on reversing nature loss, articulate a view on what business leadership looks like in the face of the ecological crisis and identify sustainable and scalable solutions.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.