World Environment Day | Why saving the natural world will save the global economy

In light of Donald Trump's potentially disastrous decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, more than ever we need to value our natural world. ClearlySo's Head of Impact Research and Innovation, Lindsay Smart, highlights the role of business and investors in helping save our planet.

By Lindsay Smart · June 5, 2017

This may not be the most dinner-table friendly analogy but I will share it anyway: over the last few years, I have come to think of the environment as a roll of toilet paper. When it seems plentiful it is very easy to take great handfuls and not think about that fateful time when there isn’t quite as much available as circumstances require. Unlike toilet roll, however, we cannot replace our environment – when it is gone, it’s gone. One planet.

For around the last 20 years, Global Footprint Network have been tracking Earth Overshoot Day. The day in the year when our demands on nature exceed what the earth can regenerate in that year. This year’s date has just been released as as August 2. Each year it is getting earlier – last year it was August 8, in 1987 it was December 19. This is not sustainable.

World Environment Day is a celebration of nature. This year the theme is “connecting people to nature”. It is encouraging us to get out and enjoy our natural environment. To breath in the air, to reflect on the world around us, and contemplate how intimately we depend on it and therefore the imperative to protect it. Our dependency on the environment stretches beyond those of air, water, and food for basic survival; our relationship is so intertwined with nature that we are also economically dependent on it. This is more than our energy needs, and the climate change and air quality challenge of fossil fuel use. This is about all aspects of our environmental dependence. From pollinators and soil, to ensuring our food supplies, to biodiversity revealing medical and bio-mimicry solutions, to metals and minerals needed for industry, to water for industry and food production.

For example, $1 trillion of annual sales have been estimated to depend on animal pollinators, who also provide $190 billion annual services to farming. Indeed, two thirds of all major crop plants rely on animal pollination. In Sichuan, China fruit farmers have been forced to take to fields in their thousands with specially made feather dusters to pollinate crops; a job natural pollinators did for free before they were killed-off by overuse of pesticides. Likewise, soil provides similar food production services.

We have yet to replicate this service, as we have been unable to artificially recreate the complex microorganism structure of soil; but we continue to promote farming and land-use practice which causes huge amounts of soil erosion and loss.

Our oceans are estimated to provide economic value of  $24 trillion, through fishing, tourism and shipping; yet we are filling them with plastic and other chemical pollutants that poison this vital supply chain. Chemical and hormonal pollutants in our waterways are now increasingly recognised as an issue for human health, but we struggle to tackle this issue because so much industry has been allowed to base its business model on the free and unfettered use of our natural capital – especially water, air, and land.

The Natural Capital Coalition are one body working to try to introduce methods for more consistent and ubiquitous application of costing the benefits we derive from nature for its more effective application in economic models.  This sits alongside wider efforts to encourage support and investment in businesses innovating in this space. For example, to name a few: development of low-water-use irrigation systems, biodynamic farming, hydroponic farming, and development of meat alternatives, not to mention innovations in renewable energy, energy efficiency and industrial process innovation.

At ClearlySo we have worked with a number of companies innovating in these areas including companies such as Q-Bot (tools for energy efficiency), Weedingtech (environmentally friendly weed killer), SteamaCo (off-grid renewable energy management solutions), and Energydeck (solutions for greening buildings).

Our own work in this area is now being mirrored by increasing large-scale investor action, especially for climate change, with the recent examples of USS and Macquarie making a joint purchase of the UK Green Investment Bank; PGGM’s €200m investment in SolarCity, and the annual Asset Owner Disclosure Project report revealing the worlds largest 500 asset owners, and for the first time, 50 largest asset managers, performance in managing financial risks associated with climate change.

There have also been 121 UK Energy projects successfully crowdfunded with an average project return of 7.36% – showing that if the mainstream market doesn’t offer opportunity, then technology can enable new disruptive routes to emerge. Not to be forgotten is the additional challenge of a need to take a united approach to our environmental interaction.

Not all countries are blessed with the same natural resources, not all are at the same stages of economic development, or governmental security that allow for long-term thinking and effective policy implementation. Take Kenya. They have little in the way of oil or precious metals, their entire foreign exchange earnings are based on ecosystems, especially water:  All their major exports, many of which are to the UK, are based on water and nature (tea, coffee, cut flowers, horticulture and tourism).

But the system is under threat as the Rift Valley lakes are sucked dry for unsustainable levels of irrigation. This water cycle pressure puts much of Kenya’s economic stability at risk. We want to consume these goods, and in doing so create profits and jobs for UK distributors and Kenyan businesses. Taxes from these companies help to pay for pensions and healthcare from which we all benefit. Propping it all up is the overlooked supply of fresh water.

We can’t ignore that tackling environmental issues at a global level requires vast levels of cooperation, and while the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement highlights it can be done, it is not easy, and can be hard to maintain; as recent events regarding Trump’s announced US Agreement exit are testament to.

Despite the intrinsic link between our economic security and our environment, political and social will to consider and protect the environment is often at its weakest in times of austerity, uncertainty, and a weakened economy, with politicians reluctant to voice a strong stance on environmental protection, through their own lack of interest or fear of voter apathy on the topic.

And yet with a more enlightened view of the role of our natural world, both from politicians and civilians, it could be recognised as a great driver of economic wealth. Education is a key enabler in this progression. We need to teach the next generation the way in which society and the environment can support each other in thriving for generations to come. With greater understanding, politicians will not only be liberated to think and speak about the topic, but will want to.

Last year, then President, Barack Obama and Sir David Attenborough met in conversation for Attenborough’s 90th birthday. Obama asked Sir David when his love and wonder of the natural world had begun. In his familiar gentle, yet probing tones, he replied by asking the President when his had ended; saying we are all born with an interest and wonder in the world around us, we just learn to forget.

This is the process we need to stop; our loss of wonder and respect for the world around us.  This is why days such as World Environment Day are so important. They offer the opportunity to stop and reflect, to create a point of focus that teachers, parents and the media can use to bring a level of appreciation and understanding that will remain embedded for life. And in doing so remind the current generations who are in power to ensure we leave plenty of sustainable natural resources for those following us, so they can continue to build a thriving and prosperous society, within a rich and healthy environment.

Let’s not be the shameful generation that leaves one solitary sheet on the roll and then slinks away.

Lindsay Smart is Head of Impact, Research & Innovation at ClearlySo, the home of ClearlySo Atlas.

Image Source: Death to the Stock Photo