Admittedly, it is not that obvious to someone sitting on a beach at the appropriate social distance, that our ecosystem is going downhill rapidly. It was only during the corona crisis, when we had to rein ourselves in, that nature got a chance to catch its breath. The economic crisis is certainly a bad one, but we will recover, like we did after previous crises. A destroyed ecosystem, however, is not easily fixed and the costs involved make those of the corona crisis pale into insignificance. How do we ensure that the corona crisis becomes the salvation of the birds and the bees?
A crisis of monumental proportions
Now that life is starting to get back to normal and stock markets have been on the rise for some time, it is easy to think that the worst is over. But at best we are getting on top of the health crisis. We are faced with countless economic problems, but because for now they mainly affect entrepreneurs and the self-employed, they are not so obvious. Going forward, they will spread inexorably to the rest of the economy, causing rising unemployment, falling house prices, bankruptcies, lower wages and higher taxes. We do not exactly have fun times ahead of us.
The IMF has calculated that the current crisis will cause economic activity to shrink by a total of USD 12.5 trillion. This means that until the end of 2021 economic activity is likely to be 7% lower than previously anticipated, which makes this the biggest post-war crisis by far.
Breathing space for nature
The other side of the coin is that the decline in economic activity is actually good for our natural environment. Our recent collective lockdown experience makes this clear: less air pollution and more space for nature. This is of course the ultimate proof that economic activity has serious negative effects on our natural environment.
But as the social restrictions are being relaxed and economic activity is increasing, nature’s breather will quickly become a thing of the past. We and our economy will reclaim that space and nature will just have to put up with that.
Last year, UN scientists already demonstrated in a comprehensive report that our economic activity constitutes the biggest threat to biodiversity. We are witnessing this on a daily basis. Simply put, if we do not change our ways, we will end up living on a barren plain that we call earth, in a biological environment that consists of a few strong and adaptable plant and animal species. An unmeasurable loss of nature that cannot be expressed in terms of money. Not an attractive prospect.
The crucial question is now: is corona the breaking point that will bring us back to the straight and narrow? Before I answer this question, I must show my credentials. Even though I am hopeful, I do not believe that human behaviour will change quickly and easily. Not even when we see for ourselves that the breathing space given to nature really does help. The threats that the loss of biodiversity entails, are substantial, but abstract and remote. And that means that, unlike in the case of Covid-19, we collectively do not see any reason for changing our system.
But there is still hope for the birds and bees. The Dutch central bank has published a report in which it demonstrates that loss of biodiversity presents a big financial risk. This - I hope - is the sort of language that we need now to bring about a system change. If even the financial sector regulator is worried, then the risk could perhaps be greater than many of us think and a system change may be approaching. I almost feel like a cheering soccer supporter in times of Corona: you cannot hear him, but he is ever so happy.