Prosperity comes at 'devastating' cost to nature

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Our demands on nature are untenable, the report says

A landmark review has called for transformational change in our economic approach to nature.

The long-awaited review by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, of the University of Cambridge, says prosperity has come at a "devastating" cost to the natural world.

The report proposes recognising nature as an asset and reconsidering our measures of economic prosperity.

It is expected to set the agenda on government policy going forward.

At its heart is the idea that sustainable economic growth requires a different measure than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

"Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature's goods and services with its capacity to supply them," Prof Dasgupta said in a statement.

"It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with nature across all levels of society."

Covid-19 has shown us what can happen when we don't do this, he added. "Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better."

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Nature isn't costed into economic decision-making, the report says

The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity was commissioned by the UK Treasury in 2019, the first time a national finance ministry has authorised a full assessment of the economic importance of nature.

The report, which has been compared with the influential 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, sets out the ways in which we should account for nature in economics and decision-making.

Recommendations include:

  • Making food and energy systems sustainable through technological innovations and policies that change prices and behavioural norms
  • Investing in programmes that provide community-based family planning
  • Expanding and improving access to protected areas
  • Implementing large-scale and widespread investment in nature-based solutions to address biodiversity loss
  • Introducing natural capital into national accounting systems.
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Should we pay nations to protect ecosystems on which we all rely?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the review. The UK is co-hosting COP26 - this year's UN climate meeting - and also holds the presidency of this year's G7. Mr Johnson said: "We are going to make sure the natural world stays right at the top of the global agenda."

Sir David Attenborough, who wrote the foreword to the review, said: "This comprehensive and immensely important report shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology face-to-face, we can help to save the natural world and, in doing so, save ourselves."

The 600-page review argues that losses in biodiversity are undermining the productivity, resilience and adaptability of nature. This is in turn putting economies, livelihoods and well-being at risk.

Commenting on the review, Jennifer Morris, of conservation non-profit The Nature Conservancy, described it as a "clarion call" to world leaders.

"We must tackle the nature crisis in conjunction with the climate emergency for the sake of our economies, livelihoods, and wellbeing - and those of future generations," she said.

The review has been published at the beginning of a critical year for tackling the climate change and extinction crises.

Policymakers are looking ahead to the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Kunming, China, closely followed by the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow in late 2021.

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. Since 1970, there has been on average almost a 70% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.

It is thought that one million animal and plant species - almost a quarter of the global total - are threatened with extinction.

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Environmental objectives should be aligned along entire global supply chains, the report says

The idea of being able to put a price on nature divides opinion, but accounting for the economic value of nature is increasingly guiding policy.

While some argue that the assumption the natural world has no value is baked into current business models, others have doubts over whether an ecosystem can be accurately represented by financial models.

Katie Kedward, economist at University College London's (UCL) Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose, argues that there are conceptual problems in trying to capture the complexities of nature in financial terms.

She told BBC News: "There are significant uncertainties in estimating nature loss in monetary terms and given the uncertainties involved price-based tools can't be used as a replacement to more important steps to restore nature."

The review is the result of an 18-month independent global assessment on the economics of biodiversity, led by Prof Dasgupta.

HM Treasury has said it will examine the review's findings and respond formally in due course.

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