Suspended walking bridge in Costa Rica rainforest
Photo credit: Dmitry Burlakov/Shutterstock

It is not easy to plan for the future during a pandemic or a recession. But this is 2020, and governments and businesses are working hard to navigate both challenges at once.

As they do so, it is incredibly important they cast aside the notion that the environment is a tangential concern.

The coronavirus outbreak that shut down most of the world is a zoonotic disease that jumped from wildlife to people, a symptom of growing conflict between human and natural systems.

If there is one lesson from COVID-19, it is that we can no longer manage environmental and economic pressures separately.

The truth is that more than half of the global economy directly depends on nature – a functioning biosphere and healthy global commons form the foundation of all well-being. People cannot prosper on a sick planet.

And yet, as the Campaign for Nature has noted, the world currently spends more on video games annually than it invests in protecting nature. Governments are allocating far more to subsidize activities that harm the planet than to activities to sustain it. Even under lockdown, the world is extracting natural resources at a rate greater than can be replenished. 

We know from science that we need to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030 to stop biodiversity loss, and we need to limit global warming to 1.5°C to keep the planet habitable. We also know that we have a short time frame to transform the way we live to the degree that is needed – and knowing where to begin can be difficult in the midst of crisis.  

The good news is that there is a strong economic rationale for making this shift. The benefits of investing in protecting nature outweigh the costs at least fivefold, with dividends including flood protection, clean water provision, soil conservation and avoided carbon emissions. Additional protections are expected to lead to an average of $250 billion in increased economic output and $350 billion in improved ecosystem services annually.

We have the tools to achieve a green recovery, including through the transformation of perverse “business-as-usual” incentives into positive ones. These include shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy; from deforestation to sustainable forest management; and from a take-make-waste industrial model to one that better manages our resources for society-wide benefits.

This kind of change is eminently possible – it has been done before. In Costa Rica in the 1970s, owning forests was taxed and people were highly incentivized to use their land for commercial purposes, such as cattle farming or lumber. Today, through a program of payments for ecosystem services, supported by the Global Environment Facility, landowners are compensated for leaving forests untouched, supporting carbon sequestration, wildlife corridors, and ecotourism alike.

Providing similar incentives, when they have broad support, could also transform the world’s agriculture, fishery, and forestry industries to reduce environmental pressures at their root causes; shift unsustainable patterns of production and consumption to reduce waste; and support the continued evolution towards renewable energy, electric vehicles, and green cities.

As economies shake off the coronavirus, we have an opportunity to ease pressure on the planet and reduce the enormous risks that climate change and biodiversity loss represent to our future. 

It is a tall order – but the scale of our environmental challenges should not deter near-term action that can make our world stronger, healthier, and fairer in the long term. 

The state of the world can be overwhelming, and those seeking to navigate a way out of today’s challenges have an uphill climb ahead. But by widening the scope of recovery planning to address environmental challenges instead of compartmentalizing them, we will all be on a stronger footing.

Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the GEF, was formerly Deputy Finance Minister in Japan. Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the Costa Rican Environment and Energy Minister, will start his first term as GEF CEO and Chairperson in September 2020.

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

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