Time for Nature: Is a global public health crisis what it takes to protect the planet’s biodiversity?

By Edward Perry, Policy Analyst, OECD Environment Directorate

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Image Credit: Shutterstock / Lois GoBe

Today is World Environment Day. As countries across the globe are still reeling from the human, social and economic cost of COVID-19, dedicating today to nature might seem ill-timed. Let me tell you – it’s not.

Our disruption of ecosystems and exploitation of wildlife may well be why we are in this mess. To reduce the risk of future crises, COVID-19 recovery packages must recognise the importance of nature for human health, well-being and the economy. This year’s theme for World Environment Day – Time for Nature – could not be more appropriate.

Nature, human health and the economy are closely linked

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, as are nearly two-thirds of infectious diseases affecting humans. That means that the disease-causing pathogen jumped to humans from another animal. So which animal caused the COVID-19 outbreak? The jury is still out. Scientists suspect that bats, pangolins and possibly other animals were involved. But let’s not shift the blame.

Look at other infectious diseases and you will see a common pattern emerge. Increased incidence of Lyme disease, Nipah, West Nile virus and other zoonoses can be linked to our heavy environmental footprint. By overexploiting wildlife and degrading ecosystems, we have brought ourselves closer to natural reservoirs of disease and disrupted the processes within ecosystems that keep these diseases in check.

Humans have significantly altered three-quarters of the earth’s surface. We have destroyed over 85% of the world’s wetlands. And between 1990 and 2015, we cut down an area of native forest 16 times the size of France. The rate of species extinction is unprecedented and accelerating, driven by land-use change, over-exploitation of natural resources, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. If we do not make transformative changes in our systems, values and behaviours, we will see further declines in nature for decades to come. And with it, a rising risk of disease outbreak.

The COVID-19 recovery must factor in nature

Governments are committing trillions of dollars to reinvigorate the economy and support livelihoods. Done right, recovery measures could set the world off on a new trajectory that improves the health and resilience of nature, society and the economy. Done wrong, recovery measures will entrench or even exacerbate pre-COVID-19 practices that destroy biodiversity, compromising our future and that of generations to come.

The COVID-19 response must be a holistic one that recognises the inter-connectedness of nature, human well-being, and the economy. Our impacts and dependencies on nature present risks and opportunities. We must systematically factor these into business, financial and economic decisions.

Five considerations for governments as they plan their recovery

First, the COVID-19 recovery is no excuse for rolling back environmental regulation. This will only create future vulnerability. Maintaining and strengthening environmental regulation is critical, but not sufficient. The increased rates of illegal poaching and deforestation during the COVID-19 lockdown highlight the importance of coupling environmental regulation with effective monitoring and enforcement.

Second, stimulus measures should be designed to have a neutral or positive impact on nature. The Greenness of Stimulus Index developed by Vivid Economics shows that, in 13 out of 16 countries, stimulus measures potentially harmful to nature largely outweigh those that support nature. Screening and monitoring stimulus measures for their environmental impact is a sound first step. To drive transformative change, governments could make bail outs conditional on companies aligning their business models with sustainability objectives.

Third, governments need to accelerate progress in reforming subsidies that harm nature. Before COVID-19 hit, government spending on subsidies harmful to biodiversity was at least five times more than total spending to protect biodiversity. Reforming harmful subsidies can help free up resources, while promoting long-term resilience.

Fourth, introducing and ramping up taxes on activities that harm biodiversity can help offset the costs of increased government spending and reductions in labour tax revenue resulting from the COVID-19 induced economic crisis, while simultaneously providing incentives to better protect nature. OECD’s PINE database shows large potential to scale up biodiversity-relevant taxes.

Fifth, nature-based jobs can get people back to work quickly, while promoting resilient, well-functioning ecosystems for the future. New Zealand, for example, is investing NZD 1.1 billion to create 11,000 nature-based jobs. Jobs include restoring wetlands, trapping stoats and other introduced pests, and removing wilding pines to make space for native bush to return.

Nature-based projects are not only quick to establish, they also have a multiplier effect. Ecosystem restoration in the US provides direct employment for 126 000 workers and generates USD 9.5 billion in economic output annually. It creates a further 95 000 indirect jobs and USD 15 billion in household spending.

In the words of Rahm Emanuel former White House Chief of Staff and former Mayor of Chicago, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  Governments have before them an opportunity and an imperative to set the world on a more sustainable path. Perhaps a global health crisis will be what it takes to protect the planet’s biodiversity.

It’s Time for Nature.

Further Reading

OECD work on COVID-19

OECD Coronavirus Policy Hub

OECD (2020) Environmental Health and Strengthening Resilience to Pandemics

OECD (2020) Environmental Responses to COVID-19

OECD work on biodiversity

OECD (2020) A Comprehensive Overview of Global Biodiversity Finance

OECD (2020) Tracking Economic Instruments and Finance for Biodiversity

OECD (2019) Biodiversity: Finance and the Business and Economic Case for Action

Other OECD work on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity

Other reading on biodiversity and human health linkages

WEF (2020), Nature Risk Rising: Why the Crisis Engulfing Nature Matters for Business and the Economy

IPBES (2019) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

UNEP (2016), UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. Chapter 6, Zoonoses: Blurred Lines of Emergent Diseases and Ecosystem Health.

WHO and CBD Secretariat (2015), Connecting Global Priorities; Biodiversity and Human Health, A State of Knowledge Review.

Karesh, W. et al. (2012), “Ecology of zoonoses: natural and unnatural histories”, Lancet, 380/9857

Keesing, F. et al. (2010), “Impacts of biodiversity on the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases”, Nature, Vol 468

Ostfeld, R. (2009), “Biodiversity loss and the rise of zoonotic pathogens”, Clinical Microbiology and Infection, Vol. 5/1,

Pongsiri, M. et al. (2009), “Biodiversity loss affects global disease ecology”, BioScience, Vol. 59/11, pp. 945-954

Jones, K. et al. (2008), “Global trends in emerging infectious diseases”, Nature, Vol. 451/7181, pp. 990-993

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