Earth convention: natural capital, biodiversity and oceans

We welcomed clients to the fifth session of our Earth Convention series, in partnership with leading cultural events organisation, 5x15. The debate, ‘Natural capital, biodiversity and oceans’, explored how biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history.

It is thought that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Rosie Boycott chaired the panel of experts - Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Dr Gabrielle Walker and Tony Juniper, who discussed how this has happened, what the consequences are and what can be done.

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Economist

Nature is our most valuable asset, and we’re all asset managers. No matter who we are or where we live, we have access to this asset, and we should try to do the best we can to manage it. The problem is the disjunction between our motivation, the incentives we have under current institutional systems and the pursuit of the common good. Society needs to create institutions that offer incentives which align the best management practices with the common good.

I use the term ‘common good’ deliberately and instead of terms like social welfare or social wellbeing. The issue of biodiversity may seem narrow but it’s actually extremely important and wide and that’s because we have now so devastated mother earth that there’s a commonality to the problem. It’s for the common good of society that we address the issue.

"Nature is our most valuable asset, and we’re all asset managers. No matter who we are or where we live, we have access to this asset, and we should try to do the best we can to manage it."

Consider nature as the provider of a wealth of goods and services, many of which we aren’t even aware of because they’re silent and invisible. The demand we make of these goods and services far exceeds the ability of the biosphere to meet it, so there’s a gap between supply and demand. That means something has to give, and what gives is the quality of the biosphere. We insult the biosphere which means it’s less productive. The bigger the gap between supply and demand, the bigger the decline in the biosphere. We now have a gap, but it’s appeared over a very short period of time, the last 60/70 years. That’s because global GDP exploded 15x between 1950 - 2020, which is a rate of growth we’ve never seen before and the pressure we’ve imposed on the biosphere is huge. The ratio of demand to supply is approximately 1.6, which is another way of saying we need 0.6 more earths if the system is to meet our demand on a sustainable basis.

Why has that happened? It’s because nature is free. No one is charging us for its use, so we don’t economise on it. We economise on expensive things, not cheap things. That’s affected the direction of technological change throughout history because the cheaper the object, the more rapacious new technologies are going to be directed to it because entrepreneurs want to save on expensive inputs of production, not the cheap ones. The trick is to devise institutions that align incentives with the common good.

"The ratio of demand to supply is approximately 1.6, which is another way of saying we need 0.6 more earths if the system is to meet our demand on a sustainable basis."

My review, The Economics of Biodiversity, concludes we need three interrelated actions or transitions. Firstly, we need to address the imbalance between demand and supply. Demand is made up of population, standard of living as measured by GDP per capita, and the efficiency with which we transport nature’s goods and services into final product (namely GDP). Up until now, the economics of climate change has generally focused on the supply side - the transition to cleaner energy, but my review concludes that technological solutions are not a solution to the biodiversity issue. We need to address all three of the demand factors as they are all interrelated.

Secondly, we need to change the way we measure economic success - I think social success is the right way of putting it. The value of natural capital is missing from normal economic discourse and that needs to change. Thirdly, we need to find and transform institutions that can address this imbalance. At the end of the second world war a number of transnational institutions were created, including the World Bank, because they serve global public goods. We should think of having an institution to whom we discharge responsibility for nature, to be trusted to collect revenue and manage the global commerce.

Read the report, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review.
 

Dr Gabrielle Walker, Author, Environmentalist and Businesswoman

Eighteen months ago, I had the immense good fortune to volunteer with some whale researchers working off the coast of Ecuador. I spent a week or two with them going out on the boats and hearing their humpback whale stories. One day they dropped some hydrophones in the water and gave me headphones so I could listen to the whales singing. It sounds just the way you’ve heard it described. Then I took the headphones off, jumped into the water and dove down so I could actually hear their song with my ears. It was so extraordinary. I can still hear it today.

Later that evening I was saying what an incredible experience that had been, but the researcher looked really sad, so I asked her what the matter was. She said that when she started the research 10 years ago, there were almost no plastic nets on the rocks but there’s since been an explosion of fishing and the rocks are now virtually completely covered. The whales swim up and down to Antarctica every year, they see the coast and they must have noticed the change. She said she felt embarrassed. This story says something about our direct connection to nature; we are embedded in it.

Over three billion people rely on seafood for their primary protein, 90% of global trade is carried on the high seas in ships and 40% of the global population lives within 100km of the sea. The sea is absolutely embedded in how we work, how we live, how we do business and how we survive. We need the seas, but we are polluting them.

"Roughly 10 million tonnes of plastics go into the sea every year - that’s a garbage truck every minute."

Anyone can throw anything into the sea. Since we don’t price it, we don’t value the service it provides or the connections it gives us. Roughly 10 million tonnes of plastics go into the sea every year - that’s a garbage truck every minute. By 2050, if we don’t stop it, by weight there will be more plastics in the sea than there are fish. This isn’t subtle.

We’re also polluting the seas with heat. 90% of the extra heat we produce has gone into the oceans and that’s already having physical repercussions. Hurricanes are more intense and sea ice is melting at the poles which is making the jet streams go weird, so we get incredibly intense cold periods in the northern hemisphere during the winter. I’ve heard this described as ‘global weirding’. The warming of the seas plus the ice melting is causing rising sea levels and also shifting currents. Just recently, we’ve noticed the northern branch of the jetstream (which warms parts of northern Europe) is starting to weaken dramatically. Changing ocean currents and the amount of heat they carry around the world will ultimately have a big effect on climate.

Heating is also causing coral bleaching. If corals bleach, they expel the sea creatures that help with photosynthesis and if they bleach every year, they can’t go back. I was horrified to hear a coral researcher say he doesn’t go to the Great Barrier Reef any more because he can’t bear it. The prediction is that it’s already gone and will just turn into slime and rock. Coral reefs aren’t just pretty, they’re also nurseries for fish. Those three billion people that depend on fish as their primary source of protein will suffer from the loss of coral reefs.

"Overfishing is probably a bigger problem than plastics; it’s wasteful, it destroys fisheries, it wrecks ecosystems, and at the moment, subsidies actually encourage overfishing."

We’re also polluting the oceans with acid. Carbon dioxide is an acid when it dissolves in water and we’ve been putting a lot more of it in the environment, so the oceans are getting more acidic. That’s making it harder for certain sea creatures to make their shells and those sea creatures are the base of the food chain so that will have a very big impact on biodiversity. We’re also depleting the seas. Overfishing is probably a bigger problem than plastics; it’s wasteful, it destroys fisheries, it wrecks ecosystems, and at the moment, subsidies actually encourage overfishing.

We’re also making great strides towards fixing these problems. The Port State Measures Agreement stops illegal fish being able to be offloaded in ports and 97 countries have signed that. The World Trade Organisation has spent decades trying to reach a resolution to address legal overfishing and it looks like they might finally be on the point of it. As far as climate change is concerned, there are so many initiatives to try to stop the excessive emissions and greenhouse gases and also reverse the process; climate healing.

We are getting there but not fast enough. How do we accelerate the change? How do we avoid getting so weighed down by the horror of the pollution that we don’t actually change the solutions? That’s a big question.

Gabrielle has written two books: Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World's Most Mysterious Continent and The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On by Gabrielle Walker and David King.
 

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England and Author

Conservation doesn’t seem to be working. I’ve been working in this field for 37 years and over that time, the reports that monitor climate change, biodiversity and ecosystems have just got worse and worse. We keep accumulating ever more knowledge about how things are travelling in the wrong direction.

We have pretty good data on the decline of forests. The world has been trying to tackle this subject since the 1970s, with early initiatives to stem the decline of tropical forests in particular. In 2014, the world came together at the UN and adopted a target to halve forest loss between 2014 and 2020 but since then, it’s actually gone in the opposite direction by over 40%. The treaty that says we should avoid dangerous global warming was agreed in 1992, when we had 355 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are now at 415 parts per million and it’s going up every year.

"In 2014, the world came together at the UN and adopted a target to halve forest loss between 2014 and 2020 but since then, it’s actually gone in the opposite direction by over 40%."

So, despite all this knowledge, why do we carry on as before? I think that the issue has been the false belief that looking after the environment actually harms economic development, that environmental damage is really the price of progress.

About 20 years ago, the glimmers of a new narrative began to build and there have since been various high-profile reports published. This is now leading to a new discussion which is crucial because the idea that looking after nature is harmful to the economy is the gravest misconception in human history. The more we degrade the environment, the more we imperil economic development, poverty reduction and all of those other things that come with a healthy economy.

We need a revolution in thinking. The nature and climate emergencies are so named because they are emergencies. We need to do something about them quickly and drive this into the heart of economic thinking. The revolution can’t just be in the environment department, it needs to be across the board. We can regulate and set targets. We can change the tax system, reducing tax on employment and levying higher tax on carbon, waste and other kinds of pollution. We can switch spending from traditional infrastructure, into green infrastructure which might preserve our water security. We can change subsidies and instead of incentivising damage to the environment, we can start moving it into the recovery for the environment.

All of those measures are available now, we just need the revolution in economics. But at least we now have the discussion moving in the right direction and a new narrative is taking hold. I do hope it leads to that shift which is so fundamentally needed.

Tony has written two books: What Nature Does For Britain and What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?: How Money Really Does Grow On Trees.

Read our Planet Paper 5: the economic ecosystem - how businesses, societies and investors can work together.

Watch the five talks from the Earth Convention.

Register for the next Earth Convention on sustainable cities, Wednesday 14 April at 6pm.

Download our Rathbones Look forward podcast series with episodes on the future of biodiversity with Isabella Tree, the future of the countryside with Professor Dieter Helm and plastics and the environment with Lucy Siegle.

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