The high cost of loss 

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If you're a regular reader of this space, you're likely aware of the combined subtext underlying the range of subjects collectively tackled: that political, economic and socio-cultural business as usual (BAU) is killing the planet.

BAU is primarily defined as widespread and random land-use change, continued increase in carbon emissions, and extensive loss of natural habitats and wildlife. From climate-change-driven extreme weather and flooding, to drought, soil erosion, and accelerated species extinctions, scientific evidence shows that Earth is changing faster than at any other time in its history, and that the way we "feed, fuel and finance" ourselves is destroying the planet's life-support systems. Since all humankind depends on these systems, it's more than just an environmental crisis. There's looming economic crisis, increasingly a focus of detailed study, as well; if verifiable environmental apocalypse can't get the attention of conservative greedheads and climate-denying politicos, then perhaps massive losses to government revenues, the global corporate purse—and their own wallets—might.

Last April, a collective of conservation scientists, NGOs, and indigenous leaders urged governments to adopt a Global Deal for Nature to tackle the combined biodiversity and climate crises. This was followed soon after by Glowing, Glowing, Gone, a campaign highlighting the danger posed by fluorescing coral reefs (as high ocean temperatures and acidic seawater bleach coral, it loses the symbiotic algae that both protects and feeds it and must marshall its own pigments for protection against the tropical sun; thus, just before it dies, coral often glows brightly in a desperate last act of survival). Mid-summer, a coalition billing itself Business for Nature pledged to bring a united global voice to international negotiations that could voice how protecting nature is now not only a moral, but economic, imperative. The combined thrust of these initiatives was a not-so-subtle shout-out to foot-dragging governments to either adopt ambitious actions that both protect and enhance the natural world, or face economic catastrophe. And now, as the hope of a new decade dawns, a new initiative is reporting on what, exactly, the catastrophic macroeconomic impact of BAU might look like.

Global Futures—overseen by the World Wildlife Fund in conjunction with the Global Trade Analysis Project and the Natural Capital Project—adds to a growing litany of business-and-beyond partnerships committed to halting and/or reversing global biodiversity loss in an effort to safeguard our collective futures. Employing cutting-edge economic and environmental modelling, Global Futures calculated impacts of nature's decline on world economies, trade and industry that offered a stark warning: unless we can act collectively to reverse this loss, trillions of dollars will be wiped from the world's economies, with the lives of millions affected.

The research considers benefits that nature provides both individuals and industries through ecosystem services (e.g. crop pollination, protection of coasts from flooding and erosion, water supply, timber production, carbon storage, coral reefs, coastlines, fisheries), as well as human threats to underlying natural capital assets (i.e., habitats and species, minerals, water, geomorphology, atmosphere), and how, if managed sustainably, these can renew themselves to provide ecosystem services in perpetuity.

The results show that in a BAU scenario, reduction of only six key ecosystem services would lead to a drop of 0.67 per cent in annual global GDP by 2050 compared to a baseline scenario of no change in services from 2011 (the base year for comprehensive data available for analysis). This number is equivalent to a staggering annual loss of US$479 billion—a total cumulative loss of US$9.87 trillion from 2011 to 2050. Agricultural sectors will be hardest hit by loss of nature benefits, hiking global prices for commodities like timber, cotton, oil seeds, and produce anywhere from three to eight per cent. Sadly, developing nations will bear the brunt, stressing already vulnerable economies with annual GDP losses of up to four per cent. Developed nations' largest losses will be in coastal infrastructure and agricultural land through flooding and erosion.

Yet, scarily, these figures are highly conservative, as the model not only reflects a subset of total natural capital assets and ecosystem services, but doesn't account for potential tipping points—thresholds for rapid change and irreversibly, such as rainforests shifting to drier and more fire- and drought-prone savannahs. As future versions of the model incorporate such issues, the economic case will only strengthen.

Naturally, the report's primary targets are decision-makers in governments (e.g. heads of state and advisers in various ministries) and the private sector (banks, corporations, investors). Currently, none of these has access to either the evidence or modelling tools required to fully understand real economic impacts of global environmental change. Global Futures can now provide those, but it can't provide the intelligence or courage to act.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.


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