This was supposed to be a big year for biodiversity — a "super year," as the United Nations proclaimed it as recently as February.
A number of landmark global meetings were planned: a World Conservation Congress in France; a United Nations Ocean Conference in Portugal; and a Nature Summit in New York. These discussions were to culminate in October at a major global biodiversity conference (PDF) in China, billed as the "Paris for biodiversity," a reference to COP21, where a landmark 2015 climate agreement was forged in the City of Lights.
The focus on biodiversity builds on a growing movement toward nature-based solutions, which harness the power of ecosystem services to mitigate effects of the climate crisis, unsustainable food systems, water pollution and other environmental challenges. Companies already were leaning into the topic, led by a global coalition called Business for Nature. It was to be a packed schedule of meetings and negotiations, all focused on nature.
Nature, it seems, had other plans. The coronavirus pandemic put pretty much all of that on the back burner. Addressing biodiversity, like so many other things, seems to have been shunted aside by the coronavirus outbreak.
It would make much more sense to keep it front and center.
The links between pandemics and biodiversity are becoming better understood and appreciated. So much so that we’re seeing the growth in an emerging discipline, planetary health, focusing on the connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and nature’s ecosystems.
This isn’t exactly new. Researchers have long known that infectious diseases typically arise at the nexus between nature and agribusiness, mining and other human activity. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the result of deforestation, leading to closer contact between humans and wildlife. The avian flu was linked to intensive poultry farming and the Nipah virus resulted from the intensification of pig farming in Malaysia.Addressing biodiversity, like so many other things, seems to have been shunted aside by the coronavirus outbreak. It would make much more sense to keep it front and center.
The list goes on: Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, Zika virus disease — and now, COVID-19. All trace back to the interaction of humans and critters. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-fourths of "new or emerging" diseases that infect humans originate in nonhuman animals. They are known as zoonotic diseases or zoonoses (from the Greek: "zoo-" for animal and "-osis" for disease).
The drivers of zoonotic diseases are changes in the environment, usually the result of human development or climate change. Example: Bat-associated viruses, thought to be the cause of the latest coronavirus, emerged from the loss of bat habitat from deforestation and agricultural expansion.
Logging, mining, road building in remote places, dam building, irrigation, coastal development, rapid urbanization, population growth — all lead to biodiversity loss. Another is fire, such as the Amazon blazes last year. In its aftermath, altered habitat can yield less food, sending foraging wildlife into contact with nearby humans, creating vectors for zoonotic bacteria, viruses and parasites.
As the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently noted: The world has lost 60 percent of all wildlife in the last 50 years while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years.
And then there’s climate change, altering and accelerating the transmission patterns of infectious diseases. Already, the roughly 1 degree Celsius rise in mean global temperatures is altering the abundance, genetic composition, behavior and survival of some species. And it’s a vicious, downward cycle: The decline of species threatens the ecosystem services nature provides that, among other things, help to regulate the climate.
Up to a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, along with 40 percent of insects, according to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. A 2017 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences referred to a "biological annihilation" that represents a "frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization."
On the flip side, protecting habitats can enable communities to better adapt to a changing climate while enhancing species survival, including ours.
More simply put: Biodiversity loss and climate change exacerbate each other. The loss of species and habitats contributes to climate disruption, which in turn can accelerate biodiversity loss — both of which can contribute to the rise of pandemics.
It’s the circle of life — and, sadly, death.
Scratching the surface
The economic impacts of all this can be devastating, as we are learning, and it’s not just from the shutdown of communities around the world. A study published last week (PDF) by the journal Nature found that as more people rely on the natural environment for their livelihood, food security and income, "a sudden disruption or loss of local ecosystems could seriously impact the ability of people in these countries to earn an income and feed themselves, potentially pushing them further into extreme poverty," said Christopher Trisos, the study’s lead author.
That can lead to mass migration. Movements of large groups of people to new locations, often to escape droughts, war or dwindling resources, increases their vulnerability to biological threats such as measles, malaria, diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
An analysis by PwC found that $44 trillion of annual economic value generation is moderately or highly dependent on nature and the services it provides. That’s roughly half of global GDP, which stood at about $87 trillion in 2019, according to The World Bank.
There’s little time to lose. The Nature report found that climate change could lead to an abrupt collapse of many more species than previously thought. It predicted that large swaths of ecosystems would falter in waves, creating sudden die-offs that would be catastrophic not only for wildlife, but for the humans who depend on it.
The risks to companies can be significant. As Hank Cauley, who heads Conservation International’s Center for Leadership in Business, put it earlier this year, "A failure to take biodiversity into account could lead to reduced food supplies, disrupted supply chains, economic loss from floods or fires — and that’s just scratching the surface."
Stepping in, stepping up
But companies also have a role to play in addressing the problem. Cauley noted, "Some companies are leaning in and protecting nature and supporting the local indigenous communities that have centuries of traditional conservation-based knowledge." The next step, he said, is to identify how other businesses can learn from this success.
A number of partnerships are helping companies do exactly that. One example is One Planet Business for Biodiversity, a coalition of nearly 20 of the world’s largest food, beverage and personal care companies that have pledged to build a more sustainable food system. There’s also Crop Trust, a Germany-based organization that has developed 27 crop conservation strategies — including for apples, coffee, fava beans, wheat, coconuts and strawberries — to provide blueprints of the current and ideal conservation status of crop diversity collections.
WEF, in a report issued earlier this year titled "Nature Risk Rising" (PDF), produced in collaboration with PwC, offered four key actions for a business response to nature risk, covering governance, strategy, risk management and metrics and targets.
WEF points out that new technologies have the potential to accelerate a shift towards a "nature-positive development path" and unlock nature’s value while minimizing resource use. It cites the use of artificial intelligence, satellite imagery and drones to automatically detect land-use changes or monitor and control invasive species and diseases in ecosystems.
That was the gist of a project launched last week by Microsoft — "an ambitious initiative to support global biodiversity," as my colleague Heather Clancy described it. It calls for creating a "Planetary Computer" to rapidly assess, monitor and manage natural ecosystems data. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon have invested in cloud resources and artificial intelligence platforms with similar missions.Corporations that benefit from biodiversity could forge what some are calling a 'new deal for nature' by paying part of the tab for biodiversity conservation.
That’s just the beginning of the kind of initiatives and proposals into which the private sector should be stepping in and stepping up. Two Colorado State University economists who have extensively researched natural resources and development proposed another way to solve the problem of species and ecosystem loss: "Corporations that benefit from biodiversity could forge what some are calling a ‘new deal for nature’ by paying part of the tab for biodiversity conservation," they wrote last year. That may be challenging given current economic climes, but it could be critical to stem both the climate crisis and new pandemics.
WEF summed it up this way: "As nature continues to deteriorate, businesses progressively run more risk. This risk is not only reputational and legal — as more consumers and governments become aware of and act on nature loss. It is also operational and financial — as direct inputs disappear and ecosystem services, on which businesses depend, stop functioning."
And, it might have added, increases the risks to human health.
"Pathogens do not respect species boundaries," disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told Ensia. "I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak. The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg."