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Economics of biodiversity review: what are the recommendations? | Biodiversity

“Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all depend on our most precious asset: nature. We are part of nature, not separate from it.” These are the opening lines of a newly published landmark review of the economics of biodiversity.

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history and the review aims to create a new economic framework, grounded in ecology, that enables humanity to live on Earth sustainably. “Our demands far exceed nature’s capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on. We would require 1.6 Earths to maintain the world’s current living standards,” says Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta in the review, which was commissioned by the UK Treasury.

“Humanity faces an urgent choice,” he says. “Continuing down our current path presents extreme risks and uncertainty for our economies. Choosing a sustainable path will require transformative change, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination and political will akin to, or even greater than, those of the Marshall Plan [under which Europe was rebuilt after the second world war].”

Many ecosystems, from tropical forests to coral reefs, have already been degraded beyond repair or are at imminent risk of reaching tipping points, which, Dasgupta says, “could have catastrophic consequences for our economies and wellbeing”. He also warns that Covid-19 could be “just the tip of the iceberg” of pandemic diseases, which are largely driven by the destruction of nature.

Dasgupta highlights that most governments pay people more to exploit nature than to protect it and that destructive farming subsidies cause damage costed at $4tn-$6tn (£2.9tn-£4.4tn) per year.

However, human societies could live sustainably, the review says, by ensuring the demands they put on nature do not exceed its supply. Food production is the biggest destroyer of biodiversity, Dasgupta says, and technology such as precision agriculture and genetic breeding can help. But overconsumption of produce linked to damage, such as beef, must be cut.

Humanity’s growing population must also be tackled, he says: “Addressing the shortfall [in women’s access to education and family planning] is essential, even if the effects may not be apparent in the short-term.” It is less costly to conserve nature than to restore it, so expanding and improving protected areas also has an essential role to play, according to the review.

Dasgupta says a reform of the measurement of economic success is needed. The use of GDP “is based on a faulty application of economics” because it measures the flow of money, not the stock of national assets. Introducing natural capital into national accounting systems would be a critical step.

Burning Amazon rainforest
Aerial view of a burning area of an Amazon rainforest reserve in Brazil Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

For ecosystems that provide global benefits, such as the Amazon forest, nations should be paid to protect them, the review says. For ecosystems outside national boundaries, such as the high seas, those who exploit them should pay for their use.

Instilling an appreciation of nature through education is vital in a rapidly urbanising world, Dasgupta argues: “The discipline to draw on nature sustainably must, ultimately, be provided by us as individuals. Many people have grown distant from nature. Our education systems should introduce nature studies from the earliest stages of our lives, and revisit them in secondary and tertiary education.”

Jennifer Morris, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, said: “Science shows us that nature is teetering on a knife-edge. The upcoming UN summits on climate and biodiversity in 2021 provide an unparalleled opportunity to redefine the relationship between people and nature. Our shared planet is counting on all of us to step up and protect our natural world for generations to come.”

Nina Seega, at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership, said: “The review’s focus on completely rewiring mainstream economic and financial models is key to moving the nature debate on to the agenda of governments, financial regulators and individual financial firms.

“It is especially pertinent to take the opportunity presented by the Covid-19 crisis to align the underpinnings of our economic and financial system with a sustainable future.”

The Dasgupta review concludes: “To detach nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to nature. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it. Transformative change is possible – we and our descendants deserve nothing less.”

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