The post-COVID environmental changes to aim for

December 4, 2020

Executive Director, UN Environment Programme


Under and above the water in Indonesia
Instead of getting back to normal in the post-coronavirus era, we need large-scale investments to halt the planetary crises and safeguard the global commons. Photo: soft_light/Shutterstock

“Normal” was destroying our health and prosperity. We cannot afford to return to it after COVID-19

It has been almost a year since COVID-19 began to emerge. We are learning how to contain the virus better and good progress is being made on vaccines. And while many countries continue to face long and difficult lockdowns, many are hopeful that the world can start returning to some semblance of normal next year.

But we need to talk about “normal.” Normal helped create COVID-19 by eroding wild spaces and bringing people into closer contact with diseases that can transmit between humans and animals. So normal brought us more than one million people dead, livelihoods in ruins, and the biggest global recession since the Great Depression.

Normal is also a warming planet, with wildfires, storms, droughts, and glacier melt intensifying. It is humanity altering three-quarters of the planet’s surface and placing the existence of one million species in doubt. It is our economies polluting the air, land, and water.

Normal, therefore, is placing our future in doubt by damaging the health of our species, societies, economies and the planet. We cannot go back to our old ‘normal.’ Instead we must go forward, charting a future where we focus our energies on building low-carbon, nature-positive economies and societies.

Financial reboot

Part of the change must come through pandemic recovery stimulus packages that align our economies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and international processes that target healthy biodiversity. Over the next six to 18 months, governments are expected to inject trillions into pandemic recovery, on top of money already spent protecting people and jobs.

Early signs show we are not moving fast enough. The UN Secretary-General has noted that as of September, G20 countries had committed 50 percent more funding to support fossil fuels than to low-carbon energy. He emphasised that “fossil fuel subsidies should have no place in any rational COVID-19 recovery plan.”

We need to invest much more in nature-based solutions, sustainable agriculture, renewables, conservation, and green and blue infrastructure.

Such large-scale investments can bring massive returns. Between now and 2030, the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could generate $9 trillion in ecosystem services and remove up to 26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – more than last year's global energy-related emissions.

The economic benefits are 10 times more than the cost of investment. To take advantage of these cost-benefit ratios, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 will marshal the global community to restore degraded land, coasts and seas.

Private finance needs to get involved

Private capital must do its share of the heavy lifting. Investors can finance climate action. Renewable energy and electric vehicles provide profitable avenues, while coal projects are increasingly seen as much less so. They must also look to biodiversity; we need the world to get behind the soon-to-be-agreed global framework to address its loss. Investors can look for biodiversity-positive investment opportunities and progress against targets – be they in agriculture, timber production, tourism, or infrastructure.

Crucially, financiers need to set comprehensive sustainability targets that align entire portfolios with the Sustainable Development Goals. Target frameworks such as the Principles for Responsible Banking and the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance have already gathered hundreds of banks and institutional investors under commitments to transition their trillions of dollars of assets to low-carbon and nature-positive investments. We need many more.

There is hope in the next generation of investors. The Economist recently highlighted that 87 percent of young investors believe corporate success should be measured by more than financial performance. They want a viable planet that can sustain them and generations to come, rather than returns generated from nature’s destruction. The investment community should take these young investors seriously.

Investing in a healthy planet is not philanthropy

Investments in nature and climate are, at heart, investments in our own prosperity. Over half of global GDP depends on nature to some extent. Our activities are eroding this economic base. To give just one figure, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found in 2018 that land degradation and biodiversity loss was costing the world 10 percent of GDP each year in lost ecosystem services.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report ranked biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as one of the top five threats humanity will face in the next 10 years, alongside extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, major natural disasters, and human-made environmental damage and disasters. The financial implications for businesses and investors include reduced commodity yields, disrupted supply chains, and the loss of potential sources of new products.

On the other hand, diverse ecosystems are more stable, productive, and resilient to change. Just as diversity within a financial portfolio reduces risk, greater biodiversity reduces risks within a portfolio of natural assets. Overall, transforming the food, land, and ocean use system could generate $3.6 trillion of additional revenues or cost savings by 2030, while creating 191 million new jobs.

When we invest in a healthy planet, we make a significant contribution to halting the three planetary crises – climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution. We safeguard the future and safeguard the global commons for generations to come. We ensure that nature, our businesses, economies, and societies thrive. That is the only kind of ‘normal’ we should all get behind.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.