What the events of the past year have demonstrated is just how strongly we depend on an intact biosphere and how interconnected the different parts of the Earth’s systems are. A shock to one part of a system reverberates and eventually becomes a shock to all.
At the root of all these systems, and essential to their healthy functioning, is the natural world, which regulates environmental processes and provides the basis for human activity. As emphasized in a recent report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), this human activity has begun to upset the balance of these processes, with potentially dire consequences for both human and planetary wellbeing.
In fact, the report argues, human encroachment into nature played a major part in the emergence of COVID-19. Central to this was the global food system, which has been one of the largest contributors in pushing the world out of the “safe operating space” where it previously rested, into a new “zone of uncertainty.”
To step back from this zone, not just for pandemic recovery, but also for resilience against future crises and shocks, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with nature across all areas of human activity. To this end, the report proposes the use of “planetary boundaries” as a dashboard to guide sustainable solutions among policymakers, consumers and businesses.
The importance of the biosphere
The finely tuned operation of the Earth’s systems has emerged over time, and is inherently reliant on the intactness of nature, or “biospheric integrity”. The loss of this intactness can have catastrophic effects not just for human health, but also for the other ecosystem services on which humanity depends.
Shifts in land-use and the destruction of habitats majorly increase the risk of infectious diseases which can pass between wildlife, livestock and humans. One study found that over the past 15 years, 61% of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases have originated in areas where nature is classed as “imperilled”, meaning “the amount of natural habitat remaining is 20% or less”.
This has been found to be the case in a number of recent high-profile health crises. Outbreaks of Ebola, for instance, have been linked to the fragmentation of forests, and some studies have warned that a failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions could lead to the expanded geographic spread of parasites such as the tiger mosquito, which can transmit diseases including zika virus and yellow fever to humans.
Of all the activities which drive these dangerous disruptions to nature, the global food system is the biggest culprit, bearing responsibility for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, “eating is the human activity which has the biggest impact on climate change.”
Not only does the food system drive agricultural expansion, creating settings in which zoonoses can jump from animals to people, it relies on a small number of crops which, along with livestock populations, are increasingly genetically homogenous. The consolidation of market power among a few large production, processing and trading companies also means that traditional diets, and the diversity of nutrients available in them, are declining.
As a result, the overall diversity of the food system – a key pillar of its resilience –is decreasing. Combined with the fact that international trade provides countless vectors for potential transmission, what begin as local surprises can quickly cascade into global shocks.
Guarding against shocks
The WBCSD report frames nature loss and climate change as two “core planetary boundaries” and argues that they have both been accelerated by their interaction with each other. This has pushed the world out of the “safe operating space” that has provided benign conditions for human development over the past 10 000 years, and into its current “zone of uncertainty.” Too much of a shift in this direction and the planet risks reaching a “tipping point”, beyond which rapid shifts into new, largely unknown states may occur.
To make matters worse, recent studies have warned that this safe operating space is smaller than previously thought, having been compromised by the feedback between the different planetary boundaries. This could have grave implications for attempts to correct course and the urgency with which we are able to do so: “This is not only like being swept away on a raft; it is as if the island we wanted to reach had become smaller.”
Yet, these planetary boundaries can also serve as a dashboard for navigation back into the safe operating space. It is with this in mind that the report lays out recommendations for how three key societal groups can “combine food system transformation with nature restoration and regeneration, both including climate action.”
For those in decision-making positions, the report notes, COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to “step back and reintroduce nature in political and economic models”. The first step in this is recognizing how intricately the food system and environmental, climate and health issues are linked. The key hurdle to overcome in taking this step and those that follow is not, however, just political, but also financial.
While a number of key steps towards greening the economy have been announced during the pandemic, such as the the EU Green Deal, further bold and rapid action is required, and attempts to take it can’t be compromised by measures such as relaxing environmental regulations in the name of economic recovery. Instead, steps must be taken to “build forward better” by protecting the natural world and making “nature-positive investments” designed to provide sustainable economic recovery and secure livelihoods. One way of doing this might be through the provision of income support, for example, which would lessen the need for poverty-induced encroachment into nature.
Reducing meat consumption is suggested as one key way to improve not only planetary, but also human, health. This is of particular relevance when it comes to the threat of future pandemics, given that livestock products have particularly high land and carbon footprints, and unhealthy diets are associated with increased vulnerability on an individual level to illnesses including COVID-19.
The report does note the emergence of certain positive trends during the pandemic, such as an increasing number of consumers buying directly from famers and a growing demand for transparency from business when it comes to the environmental and socioeconomic footprints of products. The luxury of being able to choose what food to eat and whether to hold producers to account, however, is not one available to many, particularly those with the lowest incomes and those hit hardest by pandemic-induced economic crises.
Business, the report argues, holds an equally critical role, which necessitates taking the “build forward better” slogan further in meaning than just corporate social responsibility. Instead, it should be understood as “aligning markets with the natural, social and economic systems on which they depend. It is about building real resilience, driving equitable and sustainable growth, and reinventing capitalism itself.”
Nature-based solutions are a central pillar for sustainability transformations, and are vital in ensuring that key goals, such as stabilizing global warming at no more than 1.5°C, are met by 2050. One crucial role for business is to explore the potential for emerging technologies and social innovations to aid in a shift towards circular and regenerative models.
Given the urgency of the situation, there is a clear need for policymakers, business and consumers to each do their part in prioritizing nature-based approaches to climate adaptation and mitigation, resilience building and food system transformation. In acting upon these responsibilities, the use of this dashboard can prompt a shift away from “thinking in terms of trade-offs (climate-positive solutions tolerating some negative impact on nature or vice versa)” and encourage actors instead “to prioritize synergies between nature-positive and climate-positive actions.”
Whatever form the future action by each takes, grounding it in an understanding of core planetary boundaries, particularly the climate and the biosphere, could prove to be “Earth’s best bet for the coming decades.”