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Public-Private Cooperation for the Bioeconomy

According to a report published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2019, “good” progress had been made on just four of the 20 targets, however. Better public-private co-operation is therefore essential to ensure a sustainable bioeconomy.


The public and private sectors can aim for better than “less bad” outcomes. The cost of unchecked biodiversity loss on ecosystem services (like climate control and pollination) may reach $14 trillion annually by 2050, an amount equal to nearly one-fifth of current global GDP, according to some estimates.


The strong economic case for conserving biodiversity is spurring related investment in research and development, subsidies for more sustainable practices, and the setting of aspirational targets. Many countries, even those with legacies of unsustainable fossil fuel use, can reduce related risk by making public procurement commitments to sustainable, bio-based products, and by strengthening related intellectual property rights enforcement.

 Governments are often reluctant to apply strict regulations, and instead prefer voluntary certification schemes - essentially ceding leadership to the private sector. Yet, while private landowners have been incentivized to practice more sustainable cultivation, their ability to focus on locally-relevant species could be enhanced by greater support from local authorities (and by greater investment in technical capacity).

Government-established markets like biodiversity banks, for example, enable landowners to earn conservation credits for enhancing ecological value - which can ultimately be sold to land developers. However, such trade-off schemes allow for “less bad” outcomes that still result in net biodiversity losses.


Several countries (and companies) are now moving towards requirements for “Biodiversity Net Gain,” or ensuring that biodiversity health improves after development. The United Kingdom, for example, opted in 2019 to make Biodiversity Net Gain mandatory. Businesses and business coalitions (such as those mobilized by We Mean Business, a non-profit group that aims for a zero-carbon economy) have meanwhile encouraged governments to set climate change-related targets.


A society-wide push for change, co-led by private organizations and individuals, can enable companies to focus on adapting to a new climate reality even as they seek to boost profits and operational efficiency. Currently, there is no single global target for biodiversity conservation. However, there are 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, established in 2010 under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which encourage individual governments to hit goals by 2020 - including the creation of biodiversity action plans, and ensuring adequate conservation areas.

Governance of Nature


Policy decisions can have a deadly impact on biodiversity. Adequate governance of global biodiversity is beyond the scope of any single entity. So it is worth carefully considering who, exactly, is in a position to govern the use of land, the oceans, and biodiversity - all of which we rely upon for survival. While the governance of nature was traditionally the domain of governments, a diverse mix of corporate and grassroots groups, along with both supranational and municipal governments, now play prominent roles.


This multi-stakeholder governance arose in response to a recognition that complex global issues like biodiversity loss, species extinction, climate change, and the melting of polar permafrost cannot be tackled by national policy alone. In light of increased populism in many parts of the world, it is particularly important that these governing stakeholders now complement rather than compete with each other, in the interest of preserving biodiversity.

 A single piece of land with a river running through it might represent different things to different stakeholders, for example, based on potentially valuable natural resources like fresh water; while those interests must be accounted for, it must be done in a way that protects and preserves resources.

The globalization of natural resources often results in a “tragedy of the commons,” whereby resources are exhausted and accountability for their use does not firmly lie with any single governing group or individual. One example of this is overfishing in the oceans; in regions with lax monitoring and ineffective regulation, fish stocks have been depleted. Off the coast of West Africa, several fish species risk becoming extinct - which in turn threatens entire marine ecosystems and fish-based economies.


Better public-private cooperation is urgently needed to address related issues, because the way that nature is governed today will determine how much is available tomorrow. According to the World Bank, the proportion of fisheries that are fully fished, overfished, depleted, or recovering from overfishing increased to nearly 90% of the total by 2013, from about 60% in the mid-1970s. Additionally, the New Economics Foundation, a think tank, estimates that overfishing is resulting in a loss of more than 100,000 jobs and $4.3 billion annually (the World Bank estimates that exploitative fishing in general costs the global economy at least $80 billion every year).

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A recent UN-supported study compiled by over 550 researchers re-emphasized a dire finding about the state of life on Earth: Species of plants and animals across the globe are disappearing at alarming rates. If not halted, this loss could amount to a sixth mass global extinction in our lifetime. As envisioned by Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land, we must preserve biodiversity and use ecosystems sustainably to ensure the survival of our own species.


Nearly one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction due to human activity and related climate change, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and poaching, according to a report published in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (while only 1.9 million species have been catalogued to date, it is estimated that there could be as many as 18 million in total).


Biodiversity is the collective term for the full variety of life on earth. Many think of it as the total number of species, but it is actually more complex than that. It’s about the genetic diversity within species, the diversity of habitats, and the large biological units known as biomes, such as the coniferous forest biome.


Biodiversity provides us with water, oxygen, fertile soils, climate control, medicine, and food - in addition to recreation and spiritual inspiration. While the traditional bioeconomy relies on crops, animals and micro-organisms, the unsustainable use of these resources has now pushed nature to its limits. There is a pressing need for cooperative action to halt biodiversity decline.

To use biodiversity in a sustainable manner means to use natural resources at a rate that the Earth can renew them. It’s a way to ensure that we meet the needs of both present and future generations

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Nature-Based Solutions


While conventional development often depletes natural resources and uses up vast amounts of energy-intensive materials, nature-based solutions can be applied to related problems in a sustainable way that benefits both people and biodiversity. Better protecting nature can help us adapt to climate change and prevent disasters. For example, protecting and restoring forest ecosystems in upper river catchments (where rainfall collects) can reduce the risk of floods and landslides, prevent soil erosion, and improve water quality.


This type of natural flood management can also be combined with engineered infrastructure in order to deal with severe rainfall events. Other nature-based solutions include “biomimicry,” or using nature as the inspiration or blueprint for products like medicines and advanced materials; self-cleaning paints inspired by the natural ability of the lotus leaf to remain pristine, for example, now generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. This harvesting of knowledge from nature is a key element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In a distinct but related way, nature-based solutions can also play a vital role in mitigating climate change - by locking up stores of carbon in the biomass making up forests, wetlands and other ecosystems.

 While engineered solutions can be costly and require long-term maintenance, the costs of nature-based solutions are offset by multiple benefits.

Nature can also help absorb the impacts of climate change via urban parks, street trees, and green walls and roofs that can cool cities, reduce flooding, and filter out pollution - with less environmental impact than traditional solutions like air conditioning and concrete flood defenses.


Coral reefs protect hundreds of millions of people from coastal flooding, for example, so their restoration is ultimately significantly cheaper than building and maintaining artificial breakwaters. In the US alone, coral reefs provide $1.8 billion-worth of free flood risk reduction every year, according to a report published by the US Geological Survey in 2019, while also serving as fish nurseries, tourist attractions, and carbon stores.


Still, the potential for nature-based solutions to enhance natural habitats and restore and regenerate ecosystems is not always fully realized; carbon storage strategies often involve monoculture planting of non-native tree species, for example, which have little-to-no benefit for biodiversity. Only through evidence-based project design, sound governance, and greater awareness can we use nature to cost-effectively tackle both climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

Nature and Human Health


Good human health depends on nature to provide a steady supply of nutritious food, clean air, water, and spiritual and cultural enrichment that boost mental well-being. The loss of biodiversity can have serious repercussions for public health. Green spaces can reduce the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, according to a report published in 2018 by the World Health Organization, and exposure to biodiverse green space provides a connection to nature that could benefit the 700 million people estimated to be affected by mental health issues.


While human activity and the loss of vegetation in urban areas makes them hotter than surrounding rural areas, urban green infrastructure such as parks and trees can help filter out air pollution, reduce noise, and provide cooling and shade that reduce this heating effect (and help cities adapt to climate change).


Biodiversity is also a source of genetic information valuable for research into new medicines, and into ways of bolstering food security by reducing dependence on a small number of staple crop varieties. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimated in a 2019 report that roughly 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa alone. 

The IPBES report also warned that negative trends in biodiversity will undermine efforts to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including the goal of ensuring a healthy life for everyone. Biodiversity loss and reduced human contact with the natural environment threaten to reduce diversity in human microbiota, which may lead to a weakening of immunity and the onset of non-communicable disease, according to the WHO’s 2018 report. Other health risks tied to the degradation of nature include vector-borne diseases.


Greater public awareness needs to be raised about the dependence of human health on healthy ecosystems, in order to boost collective action and avoid related risks. The IPBES report made clear that only “transformative” change will reverse biodiversity loss - its recommendations included better protecting natural habitats and introducing greener infrastructure into cities. Malaria, one of the largest causes of death in the Southern Hemisphere, is aggravated by deforestation and poorly built and -designed water systems; as the climate changes and forests are degraded, mosquitoes are increasingly traveling to new areas while carrying vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Zika.

Innovation for Nature


The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is being propelled by a convergence of technologies, offers new opportunities to shape society’s relationship with nature and create a more sustainable bioeconomy. The technologies fueling the Fourth Industrial Revolution can help create a sustainable bioeconomy. Whether it’s citizen-scientists using cellphones to report on water quality, or drones that warn elephants away from a poacher’s snare, technology can be a powerful means to improve the ways that we manage natural resources.


It also presents significant risks. This industrial revolution has sweeping implications, not least for biotechnology - in particular in terms of the potential for biomimicry (sustainable innovation that mimics nature) and bioprospecting (the use of natural materials to create new products), as well as for improved environmental monitoring and industrial ecology. It also presents opportunities to increase awareness of the need to shift to more sustainable production models, and awareness of the value that nature provides. For example, natural areas and organisms should be valued not just for the materials they provide, but also for the knowledge they confer; the value of compounds found in woodland fungi that provide a blueprint for new antibiotics, for example, may outweigh the value generated by harvesting a forest.

 By better conserving natural systems that represent billions of years of acquired, biological problem-solving ability, we can enable a Fourth Industrial Revolution that translates knowledge into economic and social value. In order to enable a truly sustainable bioeconomy, however, bold vision is required when it comes to dealing with associated risks - including environmental degradation as a result of economic activity, increased political instability and inequality, and potential bio-piracy.

While technologies such as blockchain can improve supply chain monitoring, for example, they can also consume excessive amounts of energy (the energy costs of cryptocurrency mining via blockchain exceed those of traditional mining of metals like gold and copper, according to a study published in Nature Sustainability in 2018).


It will only be by maintaining safeguards through effective regulation, innovative monitoring, remote sensing, and citizen science that we will be able to realize the opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution - and to respect nature’s limits. Fostering dialogue among stakeholders will be key for both identifying and avoiding pitfalls, as will tech hubs, education initiatives, and both public and private investments directed at protecting biodiverse areas.

Nature’s Limits

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The exploitation of the natural environment has pushed us into perilous territory. It has recently become clear that as the global economy expands, we are exceeding environmental limits on the supply of key resources like fish stocks and fertilizer, and on the natural world’s capacity to absorb the waste products of economic activity like carbon dioxide emissions, pollution, and plastic waste in rivers and oceans.


Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, according to a report published in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and as much as 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste from industrial facilities is being dumped annually into global waters.

 In addition, according to the report, fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have generated more than 400 ocean “dead zones,” or areas where the oxygen required to sustain marine life has been depleted, which cover nearly 250,000 square kilometres - an area greater in size than the United Kingdom. Negative trends like this are expected to continue until the year 2050 and beyond, barring “transformative” policy change, according to the report.

The IPBES report estimated that as a result of unprecedented rates of habitat loss and the over-exploitation of resources, one million species are now under threat of extinction. However, the report noted that it is not too late to reverse this trend by reducing consumption and moving to sustainable production methods. Agriculture, for example, should protect biodiversity while it provides food security; both the public and private sectors should become more engaged in conserving the diversity of crop and livestock breeds, and in empowering consumers to make sustainable choices.


A better understanding of the dynamics of these planetary limits can help inform business planning, and reduce the risk of the collapse of cod fisheries, or of the disease-induced collapse of agricultural products such as bananas and coffee. However, those options are not available when dealing with planetary limits. There are opportunities to work in a way that is more in tune with nature, in order to both reduce the negative impact of economic activity and to facilitate adaptation.

Conservation, Restoration and Regeneration

Ambitious collective action is required in order to preserve natural habitats. About 82% of all mammal biomass has been lost since prehistory, while the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least one-fifth (mostly since 1900). In addition, more than one-third of all marine mammals are now threatened, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.


The IPBES now estimates that in total, roughly one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction - the most in human history. While nature is under severe threat, conservation, restoration, and regeneration present potential solutions. The restoration of degraded landscapes can improve ecological integrity and human well-being. In Switzerland, for example, restoration has increased the capacity of that country’s forests, rivers, and lakes to provide water purification services; other examples include Ethiopia’s effort to plant more than 350 million trees in a single day in 2019, and the $1 billion invested in areas of the Catskills Mountains that provide water for New York City.


Unlike restoration, regeneration allows landscapes to recover their richness and functionality without active intervention. Regardless of their differences, both restoration and regeneration require comprehensive planning in order to be effective; non-native species should not be introduced via planting, and isolated areas of protected habitat cannot maintain viable populations unless surrounding areas are also made hospitable to wildlife that might cross over to find food or mates.


Restoration efforts often require costly initial investments, but are cost-effective when considering the long-term benefits to society; studies show that the natural regeneration of tropical lowland pastures can help store large additional amounts of carbon, for example. This type of responsible planning can be achieved by establishing networks of wildlife corridors within areas dedicated to different land uses - like crops or livestock. In addition, costs can often be reduced by allowing landscapes to regenerate naturally.


Some projects aim to return landscapes to pre-disturbance conditions - by establishing a baseline before a system was degraded, damaged, or destroyed - this is not always possible. While the cost-benefit ratio of restoring ecosystems is usually positive, in order to maximize related benefits both restoration and regeneration need to have well-defined goals.

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