Butterflies, nature and the business case for a resilient recovery from COVID-19
Edward Lorenz, best known as the father of chaos theory, famously hypothesized that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon could set off a tornado in Texas.
The MIT professor argued that a minor disturbance can result in hugely unpredictable effects in complex systems. Government leaders, caught in the maelstrom of a global pandemic, may well feel trapped in a real-life simulation of Lorenz’s model. So how can they escape?
The short-term answers are far from clear, as governments seek to manage unenviable pressures protecting lives and livelihoods in the face of an invisible threat. The simple reality is that the chaos will only end when a vaccine is available to everyone, everywhere. Until then, governments can only make best efforts to limit the human and economic damage brought on the wings of COVID-19.
Once the pandemic has passed, inquiries will inevitably be established – in the UK and abroad – to determine why, at the start of 2020, the world was so ill equipped to deal with an impending health crisis.
Systematic analysis of the lessons learnt from COVID-19 should certainly help ensure much greater readiness to deal with future infectious outbreaks. But, much as some may relish the opportunity to rake over the performance of beleaguered governments and international institutions, it would be a mistake for public and political debate to stay locked at this level.
Even a gold standard pandemic preparedness plan may crumble in the face of a yet unknown virus. With disease outbreaks rising year-on-year for two decades, businesses craving economic stability know that will not be enough. Our objective must be to limit the chances of future pandemics occurring in the first place. This means doing more than preparing for the worst: we need to hardwire resilience to outbreaks of disease into our global economic systems.
A good place to start is at the source: nature. An estimated 1.7 million potentially harmful viruses circulate in mammal and bird populations that have not yet passed over to humans. But environmental degradation has rapidly increased the frequency with which people come into contact with species that carry disease, raising the rate at which viruses spill from animals to humans.
To take a few examples: recent studies indicate that illegal logging accelerated the most recent outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses in Nigeria and Brazil respectively. There is also growing evidence that climate change, itself exacerbated by nature loss, may be extending the geographical spread of a number of infectious diseases.
Set in this context, it is clear that healthy societies, resilient economies and thriving businesses rely heavily on nature. Yet more than half of the world’s total GDP is already moderately or highly exposed to risks from nature loss. Natural disasters linked to ecosystem degradation and climate change cost more than $300 billion each year – while an estimated 40 percent to 60 percent of small businesses never reopen after such events.
Making action on climate and nature foundational to a future economic rebuild will require governments to get the basics right. This means rapidly adopting sound and enforceable legal frameworks; clear targets to reduce emissions and reverse nature degradation; and robust incentives to help companies recover from the pandemic while driving resilience to existential threats.
Many businesses, from luxury fashion groups to water utilities, are already showing great leadership in helping to build a resilient economy by adapting their operations to restore nature and the world’s global commons. In the past nine months alone, more than 200 global companies have made a commitment to reduce their carbon footprints to meet the most ambitious targets of the Paris climate accord.
Governments can enable more businesses to follow suit by designing post-pandemic stimulus plans that embed climate and nature objectives – together with complementary targets to advance social equality and economic opportunity. This does not mean skimping on growth but rather defining targets to ensure a rapid recovery sets the foundations for a safer and more prosperous future.
The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) was founded in 1919 – in the wake of the First World War and at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic – on a core conviction that commerce could be an enabler of global peace and prosperity. It is hard not to think we will soon face an equally important inflexion point in history.
Choices made in the initial years after the ICC’s establishment led to further lives lost and even deeper economic damage. Just more than a century on, governments must not ignore the four fundamental fragilities that could give rise to future chaos: nature loss, climate change, social inequality, and economic exclusion. When the time comes, you can be sure that global business will be quick to make the case for a resilient rebuild from COVID-19.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.