While many scientists and politicians have been making a case for a sustainable COVID-19 recovery, there has been much less attention on how to include biodiversity in such transitions, according to a new study. The findings come from a paper that explored what changes would be needed to shift away from activities that harm ecosystems.
A group of economists, anthropologists, and environmental scientists from three continents argued that concrete policies to promote better management of biodiversity haven’t been prioritized in most economic recovery packages that countries around the world are proposing after the pandemic. When they do include the environment, they mainly focus on climate.
Only a few countries have identified nature-based investments or policies in their stimulus proposals, and even there, they generally receive well under 10% of total funding. A number of countries, the US and China among them, have allocated essentially zero stimulus funds to biodiversity or ecosystem management.
“We still see huge amounts of financial support for harmful practices, such as subsidizing overfishing or fossil fuel production or building infrastructure that will harm ecological integrity. Only a small number of countries are addressing the biodiversity crisis in the serious manner it deserves,” said Pamela McElwee, co-author.
Still, there are a number of steps and policies that would aid economic reconstruction while at the same time addressing many of the root causes of biodiversity loss and the source of zoonotic diseases. With that in mind, the researchers suggest several ways of transforming economies to reduce pressures on natural systems.
- Shift from harmful subsidies to beneficial ones:
In an era of rising fiscal red ink, environmentally-harmful subsidies make neither economic nor ecological sense. Governments spend millions subsidizing fossil fuels, agriculture, and fishing. The amount of money put towards preserving biodiversity is outweighed by harmful subsidies by a factor of ten. The team suggests that pre-existing positive subsidies (that support biodiversity) could be improved and expanded upon. These include support to farmers who conserve and foster ecosystem health on their lands, for example.
- Expand new taxation policies for environmental harms:
Environmental policy has a long history of applying taxes to reduce pollution and increase resource use efficiency. However, very few direct or indirect taxes have been designed specifically to preserve biodiversity. A wide range of ecosystem-related taxes could be increased and expanded such as taxes applied to resource extraction and pesticide use.
- Guide recovery to support biodiversity and do no harm:
In the short term, as the private sector seeks grants and loans to shore up payrolls and ensure longer-term viability, governments can seek to prioritize support for those businesses that do not harm biodiversity. In 2009, former President Obama conditioned a bailed out of the automotive sector on increased fuel economy standards. Similar conditions could be required for businesses receiving COVID-19 bailout funds, including having biodiversity risk mitigation plans.
- Fund ecosystem-focused work programs and income support:
In the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis, government-supported work programs can be essential in reducing widespread unemployment. Conservation jobs, in particular, can be scaled up rapidly. Jobs in ecological restoration and green infrastructure could be a source of both employment and ecological benefits.
- Rethink production and supply chain models:
Shorter and more localized supply chains are likely to be inevitable in a post-COVID-19 world. Many already saw the systemic risks inherent in tightly connected yet fragile supply chains and the overreliance of businesses on ecosystem services. There’s a need to be proactive in maximizing positive ecological impacts and minimizing negative welfare impacts of supply-chain changes.
- Rethink ways to reduce excess consumption:
Consumption is a major driver of unsustainable production. That’s why researchers suggested improving standards, systems, and relevant regulations aimed at internalizing the external costs of production, extraction, and consumption. The pandemic may accelerate trends towards reduced consumption, given massively reduced travel and rethinking of what counts as a good quality of life. However, many immediate stimulus measures that have been proposed focus on increased consumption.
- Shift fiscal policies to reflect environmental values:
Currently, governments have a great deal of concern about how they will balance budgets and manage long-term fiscal stressors. In light of these challenges, ensuring that state fiscal policies continue to reflect environmental values is important, and financing can help subnational areas balance their budgets. Ecological fiscal transfers, for example, are a policy instrument used to redistribute tax revenues among public actors based on ecological or conservation-related indicators.
- Incentivize the financial sector on nature-related risks:
For the financial sector, including banks, wealth and pension funds, private equity, insurance companies, and others, a mix of regulations and incentives can encourage investments in industries and technologies that reduce pressures on nature. The FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) is increasingly implicated in biodiversity loss.
- Ensure continued international conservation funding:
Although governments will be financially strapped for the foreseeable future, there will still be a need to support global funding for conservation and sustainable development initiatives, both in the immediate short- and long-term. Currently, most countries spend only a fraction (less than 1%) of their GDP on biodiversity-related activities.
- Address inequality in sustainable recoveries:
Economic inequality is problematic on its own, but it also generates poorer environmental outcomes. Income inequality is associated with excessive consumption and higher carbon emissions among richer classes and more unequal countries also tend to have higher rates of biodiversity loss.
For the researchers, we now have a unique opportunity to seize the moment and consider the economy we want and need for a sustainable, just, and equitable future in a post-pandemic world. Societies now have to decide if they try to get back on the previous development path, or define a new one.
The study was published in the journal One Earth.