2.1 Key trends
This is a critical year for nature, with a series of global summits on biodiversity, food and climate change. Scientists are sounding the alarm over ecological destruction and the risk of irreversible damage to our planet. But natural solutions also offer some of the most exciting solution areas for sustainability.
- With rising threats to our natural world
- Many companies are making commitments on nature
- We are seeing the rise of natural solutions
- Guardrails are crucial as they go to scale
The degradation of nature continues and there is rising concern over ecological tipping points. Over half of the world’s GDP, $44 trillion of economic value, is at moderate or severe risk due to nature loss, according to the World Economic Forum.
Pressures on natural ecosystems are also amplifying other risks, including water scarcity and the risk of disease.
A temperature anomaly is the departure from the average temperature, positive or negative, over a certain period.
Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the most pressing issues of the Anthropocene.
IPBES-IPCC Co-sponsored workshop: “Biodiversity and climate change: Workshop report“, June 2021
Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, February 2021
Global search interest in “nature-based solutions” is soaring, and scientists are writing about it more frequently.
More companies say they are embracing regenerative agriculture. That said, the earlier experience with the watering down of “organic” is instructive here, and there’s already evidence of large agribusiness claiming to sell a few regenerative products while still, for example, supporting deforestation-driven beef production on a larger scale.
“Entities“ includes companies, investors, organisations, and farms
No growers who have used regenerative agriculture have stopped doing so, according to a recent survey. Among those growers who currently use regenerative agriculture, nearly two-thirds said that they planned to use it more in the future
Different natural pathways have different mitigating potential over time.
Private investment is accelerating across several key segments of natural solutions. Investment is largely focused on alternative proteins and other activity on the demand side. Other types of natural solutions discussed in this chapter are still at the early stages of scaling up.
Different countries have very different sequestration potential. Mangroves are one of nature’s most productive carbon assets, and can sequester carbon up to 400% faster than land-based tropical rainforests. Indonesia has 24% of the world's restorable mangrove ecosystem.
The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures started to take shape this year, with the support of the G7 countries. Clear and robust frameworks are important for evaluating whether companies and portfolios are nature positive, and for ensuring there are strong safeguards around all natural solutions.
2.2 Regenerative food systems — from fringe to centre-stage
The number of overweight people in poorer countries is now rising rapidly, having been high for a while in the rich world. “Lifestyle diseases“ are thus becoming more common in poorer countries and will become ever more so.
And even in the world's richest countries, anaemia (and other conditions linked to deficiencies of certain nutrients) remains very high and there are indications that it may be rising.
The most basic problems with food continue to cause huge global problems. Each year worldwide, unsafe food causes 600m cases of foodborne diseases and 420,000 deaths, according to the WHO. 30% of foodborne deaths occur among children under 5 years of age. Even in the world's richest countries, food insecurity is a big problem — especially during the pandemic.
Agriculture uses up huge amounts of land, and creates large-scale environmental damage, such as ocean dead zones.
Food production accounts for around one quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions. If the full food value chain is included, this increases to around one third.
Food-system emissions amounted to 18 Gt CO₂ equivalent per year globally, representing 34% of total GHG emissions. The largest contribution came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities (71%), with the remaining from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.
Crippa, M., E. Solazzo, D. Guizzardi, F. Monforti-Ferrario, F. N. Tubiello, and A. Leip. “Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.“ Nature Food 2, no. 3 (2021): 198-209.
Financing hit an all-time record in the third quarter of 2020. One of the hottest areas for investment is the alternative-protein space.
Sales of organic food proved resilient in 2020, despite the shock of the pandemic. Has the pandemic made more consumers recognise the value of sustainable food?
Growth in plant-based meats continues to outpace growth in animal-based products
Global consumption of beef is barely growing, but it is not yet falling.
2.3 A raft of natural solutions for net zero and biodiversity
Many 1.5°C scenarios make use of CO₂ removals at a huge scale. There are risks here. Over-dependence on removals via natural solutions, for instance, would have unsustainable impacts on land use.
Yet natural climate solutions will play a vital role in tackling the climate crisis as well as protecting biodiversity. Nature-based solutions could deliver one-third of emissions reductions required by 2030. This includes the critical goal of ending deforestation.
Agriculture is often a key sector for nature based solutions. For instance, planting cover crops in arable lands that have an off-season fallow period often increases the carbon sink capacity of the agroecosystem (see Lugato et al., 2020).
We estimate a practical potential of close to 7Gt CO2 per year from NCS projects, sufficient to deliver around one-third of that target and to achieve carbon removal in the near term and at lower cost than technological solutions.
World Economic Forum/McKinsey “Nature and net zero“, May 2021
Demand for NCS credits has increased rapidly over the past decade.
- Ensuring that companies place more emphasis on cutting emissions over carbon removals, though both are required. Some companies are leaning on offsets or removals to deliver the bulk of their net-zero commitments.
- Effective long-term governance over carbon removals, and monitoring and reporting programmes. Recent studies have shown (again) how difficult this is — look at the examples of the California offset scheme and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
- Getting the guardrails right for nature-based solutions is key to ensure sustainability and deliver real climate and other critical ecological benefits. Financial innovation can’t run ahead of safeguards and governance.
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is the process of extracting bioenergy from biomass and capturing the carbon, thereby removing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
Studies highlight the massive implications for food, soil and forests. A growing body of research shows that BECCS on a large scale could have negative impacts on core dimensions of human and ecosystem well-being. Due to its land-use impact, widespread use of BECCS could lead to increased food prices as a result of competition between agriculture and other land uses.
Large-scale deployment of land-based carbon-dioxide removal would have far-reaching implications for land and water availability [...] and may impact food production, biodiversity and the provision of other ecosystem services
Deals and investment are rising rapidly in the “natural solutions” space. There is also rising investor focus on protecting biodiversity and promoting regenerative practices, going beyond a narrow focus on climate outcomes.
Media mentions of “bio-based” and similar terms are rising quickly.
Long-lived wood products that are harvested from sustainably managed forests have been around for decades but are being applied in a wider variety of buildings, helping to displace emissions-intensive concrete and steel and storing carbon often for many decades.
Other nature-inspired solutions for construction are emerging too, such as the production of bio-cement using bacteria, though these are yet to achieve scale.
American Framing, Pavilion of the United States at the 17th International Exhibition of Architecture La Biennale di Venezia, photo: American Framing, 2021
Bioplastics production capacities are rising rapidly. Biodegradable plastics could play an important role in tackling the marine plastic crisis, but they will need to both scale up and prove their environmental performance.
That said, there is reason for caution. Roughly 40% of these bioplastics are not biodegradable and it’s only a minuscule percentage of the overall production at the moment. Emissions are also generated in the production of plastics. There is also the question of waste management at the end of usable life.
Business for Nature has identified over 1,200 examples of companies taking action for nature. Some recent notable examples include:
- Unilever is setting aside EUR €1 billion to fund nature regeneration projects, including achieving a deforestation-free supply chain, promoting regenerative agriculture, and transitioning to biodegradable ingredients by 2023.
- Nestlé is committed to 50% of its agricultural ingredients coming from regenerative agriculture by 2030.
- Microsoft has pledged to be net negative for current emissions by 2030 and then remove historical emissions by 2050. Its carbon removals will come from sequestration in nature, especially in the short term.
These are ambitious goals, but questions remain over the credibility and stringency of some nature-positive commitments.
Overseas development-aid funding for natural solutions is increasing rapidly. Sub-Saharan Africa is a particular beneficiary of such funding.
To put this in context, the biodiversity financing gap has been estimated at between $598 billion and $824 billion per year by the Paulson Institute.
Nature-based solutions (NbS) can be used for a variety of objectives, including climate change mitigation and/or adaptation, biodiversity conservation, and disaster risk reduction
World Resources Institute, “Public international funding of nature-based solutions for adaptation: a landscape assessment“, March 2021