(Image: Los Nevados National Park in the Colombian Andes. The World Economic Forum sees nature worldwide as something not just to protect, but preserve in the name of a global stimulus package.)
With many people sheltering in place and the huge increase in the consumption of single-use plastics, it appears at face value that few are thinking about the environment right now. But the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently issued a study that takes a novel approach to a global stimulus program – one that could benefit just about every sector, from tourism to automobiles.
As tragic and exasperating as the COVID-19 crisis has been, WEF envisions seeds of opportunities in the recovery from this global pandemic. A new report, The Future of Nature and Business, sees 15 transitions comprising a global stimulus plan that can help heal the environment while creating economic opportunities for citizens worldwide.
Repairing the world: Where do we start?
“Multilateral and multistakeholder cooperation will be key to realizing the opportunities identified in this report across three key socio-economic systems that can create [$10 trillion] of global GDP growth and 395 million jobs by 2030,” wrote Carlos Alvarado Quesada, president of Costa Rica and co-chair of WEF’s Champions for Nature program.
We’ve heard this term “multilateral and multistakeholder cooperation” (or collaboration) countless times. So, what exactly does the WEF mean?
At a higher level, there are three overarching pillars of such a global stimulus plan: food, infrastructure and energy. Those pillars in total house 15 transitions, each of them a massive shift in its own right, that WEF says can help rebuild economies and secure the planet for future generations.
First, transform how we eat
The WEF study points out that what society eats and grows already comprises about $10 trillion of the global economy and employs as much as 40 percent of the world’s citizens. The problem, however, is that the global food and agriculture sector is dominated by 12 plant and five animal species that together provide 75 percent of the world’s food supply. And as anyone who’s studied the risk of monoculture in agriculture can explain, the risks are continued loss of natural habitat and the disappearance of pollinators.
Furthermore, while land for raising livestock takes up 80 percent of the land used by farming, animal protein only provides 18 percent of the world’s calories. Plant-based substitutes, which use a fraction of land and water compared to beef, would help reverse those trends.
Improvements in farm yields, the food supply chain and how the world manages fisheries can also become a part of this long-term global stimulus plan.
Inefficiencies in the global apparel sector also contributes to the amount of waste generated by agriculture. A more sustainable textile industry, which reduces waste and boosts the amount of recycled materials, would alone reap $130 billion in savings and prevent almost 150 million metric tons of waste by 2030.
In sum, almost half of the global jobs envisioned in this WEF study would occur within the global food and agriculture sector by 2030.
Infrastructure investment is also important to a global stimulus plan
Just about every country has aging infrastructure that’s of concern. But to sum up the WEF’s ideas of how society can reimagine infrastructure investment, it boils down to three words: smart, sensors and salvage.
To start, retrofitting buildings worldwide so they become more energy efficient would both employ people as well as reduce the world’s collective carbon footprint. That step alone would account for savings of almost $1 trillion. But accelerating the installation of LED lighting and green roofs would help on this front, too.
In addition, smarter water management systems – accomplished by investments in sensor technology – would ameliorate the leaky and inefficient water systems that are the bane of many municipalities. WEF estimates savings would total well over $100 billion with a 20 percent ROI.
Finally, WEF is bullish on the circular economy, if all stakeholders are on board. In the European Union alone, investments in circularity could create up to 3.4 million more jobs by 2030. Worldwide, more collection and better recycling could account for more than $300 billion in revenues.
Should WEF’s vision become a reality, almost 30 percent of new jobs that emerge in the coming decade would be related to infrastructure.
A nature-positive approach to energy (and extractives)
Here is where the WEF’s vision becomes most complicated, due largely to how politics can play out, or lash out, worldwide.
On one hand, it’s clear that renewables, especially solar, have become cheaper than fossil fuels even without subsidies. As more countries scramble to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Accords, investments in clean energy can contribute at least $650 billion to a global stimulus plan over the next decade.
Where it gets more challenging is the expectation that the extractives industry can become more efficient ($225 billion in savings) and gain leaner manufacturing across the globe ($870 in savings).
The report also acknowledges that land committed to renewable energy projects can use up to 12 times the amount of land as conventional coal-fired power plants. WEF, however, foresees the use of more brownfield sites as well as innovations such as high-rise solar projects.
Each of these aforementioned “transitions” certainly seems possible when evaluated on their own. But as is the case with many detailed projects, there’s a devil lurking within. Getting a wide range of industries to cooperate, not to mention sovereign countries, is a huge task. The alternative, however, certainly isn’t an attractive option. And as we’ve seen with challenges such as food waste and its relationship to energy and water, the stubborn fact is that all of these transitions are interrelated.
At least one CEO is calling on both the public and private sectors to move forward.
“COVID-19 has shown the need to drive greater resilience in our global supply chains, food systems and healthcare delivery,” said Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever. “Whilst there is still uncertainty in how the pandemic will unfold, we must recognize this as an opportunity to accelerate efforts to put nature at the center of all decision-making.”
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.