Megan Murison, Project Officer, EWT National Biodiversity and Business Network, Angela Cherrington consultant, and Dr Joel Houdet, consultant
“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis”.

The United Nations Environment Chief, Inger Anderson (2020)

Disease outbreaks, biodiversity loss and climate change

According to the World Economic Forum (2020), the frequency of disease outbreaks has been increasing steadily. There were 12,012 recorded outbreaks between 1980 and 2013, comprising 44 million individual cases all over the world. While these outbreaks are linked to increasing global travel, trade, connectivity, and high-density living, and although our understanding of how functional ecosystems protect us from diseases is still limited, there also appear to be strong linkages between disease outbreaks, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

Human activities have significantly altered three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the ocean, changing the planet to such an extent as to birth a new era: The Anthropocene”. Changes in land use that result in habitat destruction for biodiversity (e.g. deforestation and agriculture) bring wildlife, domestic animals, and humans into closer contact, facilitating the spread of zoonotic diseases, including new strains of bacteria and viruses. Uncontrolled illegal and legal trade in live wild-caught animals breeds even more dangerous grounds for human-wildlife contact and the transmission of diseases. Many recent outbreaks have originated in markets selling a combination of live and dead, wild and domestic mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Climate change has also altered and accelerated the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as Zika, malaria, and Dengue fever, and in some cases resulted in the displacement of large groups of people to new locations, often under poor conditions. Groups under these conditions are also more vulnerable to additional ailments such as measles, malaria, diarrheal diseases, and acute respiratory infections.

Business unusual: Time for pro-active biodiversity mainstreaming

Biodiversity is under severe threat globally, including in South Africa, and the private sector is one of the primary drivers behind the degradation of habitats and the loss of biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body established in 2012, made up of over 130 member states around the world, recently confirmed that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, more than ever before in human history.

Business both relies and impacts on biodiversity. Biodiversity produces a wide variety of services on which businesses depend. Examples include the supply of raw material, crop pollination, genetic resources, water filtration, flood attenuation, erosion control, and many others. As such, business is critically dependent on ecosystem services to produce the goods and services it sells. Companies would not be able to operate without biodiversity.

In the context of COVID-19, countries and the private sector must not use the pandemic as an excuse to weaken environmental protection and enforcement, as argued by a UN independent human rights expert. The reverse should be the case. Governments and businesses must tackle the Covid-19, biodiversity, and climate crises with a holistic strategy – transforming the global economy to be just, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient.

If this is to be achieved, the mainstreaming of biodiversity should be done in all economic sectors: i.e. integrating biodiversity into business strategies and activities, notably in supply chains where land use changes, resource consumption and wildlife trade take place.  Biodiversity mainstreaming needs to benefit both humans and nature, and businesses need to be able to assess their impacts on biodiversity and manage them effectively. This builds on a growing movement toward nature-based solutions, which harness the power of biodiversity and ecosystem services to mitigate effects of the climate crisis, unsustainable food systems, water pollution, and other socio-economic and environmental challenges. The EWT’s National Biodiversity & Business Network’s Biodiversity Disclosure Project (BDP) aims to assist companies to assess both their opportunities and their risks related to biodiversity. The BDP offers businesses an easy method to account for their biodiversity impacts, using a standardized accounting protocol. Should you or your business be interested in better understanding your impacts on biodiversity, please contact the NBBN team here.

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