Saving Species, Saving Us: Biodiversity Investments Are Critical to Global Green Economy

A new study warns of ecosystem collapse in the coming years. Investing in biodiversity must be made a priority

"We cannot manage what we do not measure and we are not measuring either the value of nature's benefits or the costs of their loss,” wrote Pavan Sukhdev in an article last year in The Guardian about the services that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems provide to humankind. Now, a new study conducted by Dr. Murray Rudd, a conservation biologist at the Environment Department at the University of York in the United Kingdom, highlights how our long-term devaluing of the natural world has led to a general consensus in the scientific community that environmental collapse on a wide-scale level is inevitable.

Rudd issued a survey to 583 of the world's leading conservation researchers and found that they were unanimous in their view that "a serious loss of biological diversity is likely, very likely, or virtually certain" and that "tropical coral ecosystems were perceived as the most seriously affected by loss of biological diversity" -- particularly troubling as some 30 million people around the world are almost totally dependent on healthy coral reefs for their survival and around half a billion people have some dependency on reefs.

Rudd's survey also found that "many scientists expressed a willingness to consider conservation triage, engage in active conservation interventions, and consider reframing conservation goals and measures of success for conservation of biological diversity in an era of climate change."


Part of reframing biodiversity conservation is looking at strategies through the lens of financial investment, something that World Bank President Robert Zoellick made clear in remarks he made at last year's United Nations conference on biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan. "Preserving ecosystems and saving species are not luxuries for the rich," Zoellick said, stressing that "biodiversity is not an add-on." Making the connection between economic development and species preservation, he said that the World Bank would increase its financial support for conservation. Though the World Bank has invested over USD 6 billion on biodiversity services, Zoellick said that it wasn't enough.

"Humans derive many utilitarian benefits from the environmental services of biotas and ecosystems," asserted biodiversity expert Norman Myers in a 1996 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), "including regulation of climate and biogeochemical cycles, hydrological functions, soil protection, crop pollination, pest control, recreation and ecotourism." Myers, who is an honorary visiting fellow at Green College at Oxford University, noted that "ecosystem resilience" was of particular importance and appeared to "underpin many of the services."


In September, BirdLife International, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a briefing that stressed the importance of investing in biodiversity conservation as part of the European Union’s Cohesion Policy, a financial solidarity policy meant to close the economic gap between the EU’s different regions.

"Under business as usual, it is estimated that by 2050 the loss of biological diversity will cost the world 7% of global GDP," the authors state, adding, "The upcoming EU Budget provides new opportunities to invest in natural capital and thus contribute to the achievement of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth by 2020. But for this, Cohesion Policy has to start investing significantly into biodiversity and ecosystems. Otherwise several of the needed investments will fail to take place."

The briefing argues that Cohesion Policy should invest in biodiversity to achieve low-cost carbon savings, reduce impacts of climate-related disasters, create jobs, provide important ecosystem services (e.g., carbon storage, water purification) and protect coastal cities, which are more vulnerable to climate change impacts.


Finding political will, however, to invest in biodiversity in the near-term is a tall order, especially considering the global financial crisis and the eurozone crisis in particular, which could lead to a USD $45 billion gap in climate change funding due to austerity measures, according to report issued on Thursday by Ernst & Young. Spain, for example, is forecast to spend USD 5.1 billion less on climate change by 2015.

This is where individual and institutional investors can step into the breach, reviewing their portfolios and making sure that their investments are, if not directly promoting biodiversity, at least not supporting companies that cause biodiversity loss and environmental destruction. Companies too can protect their supply chains and attract green investors by not only reducing their impact on biodiversity, but by aligning their business models to better support the healthy development of biodiversity.


There are some tools that can help. The decision-making program InVEST, for example, created by the Natural Capital Project -- a joint venture of Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, the Nature Conservancy and WWF -- assists conservation organizations, corporations and governmental agencies align their missions to protect biodiversity.

Justmeans Insights is an online data visualization tool that can help investors, consumers and companies see how the world's biggest firms within a given sector stack up against each other in terms of environmental initiatives, carbon emissions and environmental expenditures.

Being more aware of the services that biodiversity gives us is critical to shifting to a truly green economy. We don't live in a bubble. Separating our destiny from the destinies of the millions of other species that share this planet with us is impossible. But that connection has rarely been made and because of the disconnect, we have acted for far too long without considering the repercussions that those actions have on the natural world. We are now seeing the results of that irresponsibility.

As Professor John Beddington, the UK's chief scientific adviser, warned in his 2009 "Perfect Storm" speech, we are on target to trigger mass migration and worldwide social unrest by 2030 due to the effects of climate change and shortages in food, water and energy.

To put it mildly, we have not been good stewards of the global environment or our limited resources. At the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, the world's leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade. Part of that agenda for both the public and private sectors must be an increased investment in biodiversity conservation. Because when we save species, we save us.



image: Deforestation: Jungle burned down to make room for agriculture in southern Mexico (Jami Dwyer, Wikimedia Commons)