Forest on a Tree © Antonio Fernandez, courtesy of the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Forest on a Tree © Antonio Fernandez, courtesy of the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

We need to act now to save nature

It will cost us double to preserve nature unless we act now, Museum scientists have found.

Nature keeps all of us alive. If we don't look after it, millions of people all over the world will face sickness and starvation in the coming century. 

But nature is struggling, and it needs our help. Animals and plants everywhere are disappearing. It is vital that we stop nature's decline - and we need to act now, together. 

A new report commissioned by the Treasury has done the maths on how much it might cost the world to properly protect the natural environment, and whether we can afford to put it off for now. 

It has found that it is twice as expensive to delay acting than it is for governments to act immediately. Urgent change is needed to stem losses before it becomes much more difficult. 

Prof Andy Purvis, a biodiversity expert at the Museum, worked on the report jointly with Vivid Economics and fellow Museum researchers Dr Adriana de Palma and Ricardo Gonzalez. 

It comes a week after a review by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, which Andy and colleagues contributed to, recommended that the world changes its economic systems to better protect nature. 

Andy says, 'Action to conserve the natural world must be taken at some point. If it isn't, we know that hundreds of millions of people will die. We all know that we have to change the way we live in order to avoid a huge loss of life and wellbeing. To do otherwise would be criminally negligent. 

'Tackling the biodiversity crisis is not free - but it's far cheaper to do it now than to kick the can down the road for future generations.' 

A global dataset 

Andy leads a project called PREDICTS, which uses a global database to analyse how human activities can affect nature.  

Currently, levels of biodiversity - the variety of life - all over the world are dropping. A million species are threatened with extinction and natural habitats are disappearing. We need to stop that decline. 

Andy’s team examined three different future scenarios: doing nothing new to stop the decline, acting now to stabilise biodiversity loss, or waiting ten years to try to stabilise it. He modelled what would happen to nature over the next 30 years, up to 2050. 

He says, 'We had a baseline scenario where we do nothing to help nature, beyond what we’re doing already. Then we compared it to an ambitious reforestation programme. Forests are vital to our future:  they are where animal and plant life tends to be concentrated and they are also a carbon sink, which means they absorb greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. They should be a high priority for protection.' 

Andy and his colleagues also modelled how many species would go extinct by 2050 under the three different scenarios. 

They found that by far the cheapest course of action was making a start right away. 

Andy says, 'Delaying by a decade is possible, but taking action would start to become extremely difficult, and it would cost us twice as much to retain the same amount of biodiversity by 2050. 

'Either we pay now or future generations will pay more. Do we really want to pass this on to our children as an ecological debt?' 

What does action now look like? 

Taking the example of forests, the report recommends that governments immediately look to replant forests, which – as long as it’s done carefully – can support biodiversity more quickly than natural regrowth. It recommends prioritising areas where many unique animals and plants are clinging to life.  

Incentives also need to be introduced so that people can make more profit by creating and protecting biodiversity-rich areas than they would by farming the land instead. 

Historically, one of the biggest causes of deforestation is clearing land for farming, so we also need to make farming healthier for the planet and kinder to people. For example, in the UK 70% of land is given over to farming, where once it was mostly forest. 

Andy says, 'We could improve the trade-off between food production and nature in this country - there is room in most of the world to have much more biodiversity-friendly agriculture, working with nature rather than against it.' 

If we wait a decade to start creating new forests, Andy’s team estimated that the world would have to reforest an area the size of the Amazon rainforest in just 20 years - an unprecedented rate of expansion. 

While we are replanting, the world will still need to eat, which is why the report recommends that governments support farmers in exploring more efficient ways of working. 

Andy says, 'If we act now then food prices will continue to fall as a proportion of people's incomes. If we delay by a decade then it will cause a disruption in food prices because of the amount of land that will need to taken out of agriculture. The people who lose out will be the poor and vulnerable.' 

Likewise, individuals will need to make some sacrifices too, including eating less meat and dairy and eating more foods grown close to home. 

Following the report's recommendations will in many ways make for a more pleasant planet to live on. 

Andy says, 'This year we have seen how important biodiverse green spaces are for people's mental health. Reforestation is good for people.'