Nature loss: tomorrow will be too late, but we know how to fix it!

Aerial view of morning mist at tropical rainforest mountain. iStockPhoto, Credit: AvigatorPhotographer

There is now ample evidence that nature plays a key role in the COVID-19 pandemic’s emergence and recovery. Last December, WBCSD launched a White Paper “COVID-19: a dashboard to rebuild with Nature”, proposing a dashboard based on the two core planetary boundaries of climate change and nature loss. This report concludes that a nature positive food system is the most effective way to build resilience against future shocks, including new pandemics. This dashboard paves the way for a trajectory change and a new economic model that will give us better chances to have wealthy 9 billion people on a healthy planet in 2050.

During a premonitory discussion that took place at a Global Commons Alliance workshop one year ago – while COVID-19 was already silently spreading across the world -, I discovered a fantastic dashboard published in Nature Sustainability by Steven Lade and colleagues on Earth systems interactions. I further used this dashboard to explain why “fixing our food system may be the most effective cure for our planet and prevention for future global disruptions” in a WBCSD insight and later on adapted by DSM colleagues for their feed talks. This is when, in the middle of the pandemic, Peter Bakker, my WBCSD CEO, asked me whether we could use science to better understand the connections between Nature and COVID-19, and to subsequently guide on rebuilding our economies beyond the pandemic. We soon gathered our brains with Steven Lade, and former CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food colleagues Holger Hoff and Johan Rockström (the “father” of the Planetary Boundaries concept), to develop this White Paper.

A dashboard to rebuild with Nature

The role of humanity in climate change is now well scientifically established, and it ‘signals’ the entry of our civilization into the Anthropocene era. However, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Anthropocene had manifested only in several regions of the world, and never before with such an intensity and global spread. Our science review shows that this pandemic, like two thirds of the emerging infectious diseases over the past 75 years, is strongly related and explained by the frenzy pace that our consumption model imposes onto land conversion (especially deforestation) for the mining industry, human settlements, and agriculture.

WBCSD’s vision is a world where, by 2050, over 9 billion people are all living well and within planetary boundaries – a framework developed by Johan Rockström and colleagues in 2009 that defines a “safe operating space for humanity” where civilizations have flourished and thrived for the past 10,000 years without harming the Earth’s natural systems. Our dashboard, which I already presented in a previous piece, is based on a simplified representation of planetary boundaries, namely showing the key dimensions of climate change and nature loss from agriculture:

Effects of interactions between planetary boundaries on the shape of the safe operating space for human impacts on the Earth systems. The X-axis roughly corresponds to terrestrial impacts of agriculture and the Y-axis to climate change. The green region defines the safe operating space; the yellow region is where at least one Earth system is beyond its planetary boundary; the red region is where at least one Earth system is beyond its zone of uncertainty. Blue dots and arrows describe the positions of the successive states of the Earth in 1970, 1990 and 2020. White arrows illustrate two possible global-scale transitions: halving meat consumption and climate action only

Using this dashboard, we reconstituted the positions of the successive states of the Earth in 1970 (still in the safe operating space), 1990 (zone of uncertainty) and 2020 (beyond the zone of uncertainty). We also added the white (indicative only) arrows to illustrate two possible global-scale transitions: halving meat consumption and climate action only.

The ‘beauty’ of this dashboard is that it simply represents how our civilization has entered an unsafe operating space, one never experienced over the past 10,000 years, where two of the main drivers of emerging diseases – land-use change and climate change – are “beyond boundaries”. This framework shows that fixing the food system could be an effective pathway to navigate the planet to, or close to, a safe operating space.

What it means for policy makers, consumers and business

Using such a dashboard for recovery to build forward better aims to safeguard Earth resilience, meaning the capacity of Earth systems to: (i) buffer shocks and stress and (ii) avoid or at least reduce the impact of future zoonotic disease outbreaks. It also implies immediate transformation of the systems on which human beings depend, especially food systems, in a way that nature restoration and regeneration are central and combined with climate action. Food systems should particularly (i) ensure that the substitution of animal protein by plant protein does not locally result in further loss of natural ecosystems or deforestation to produce protein crops; (ii) avoid deforestation and using agro-chemicals for fertilization and pest control that would in turn damage terrestrial and water ecosystems; and (iii) ensure a just rural transition for the hundreds of millions farmers who produce our food across the world. Nature-based solutions, which deliver value to society by addressing societal challenges and benefit nature by enhancing ecosystem services, will be key enablers of such transformations.

As the way to use such a dashboard depends on who uses it, our white paper proposed directions for policy-makers, consumers and businesses, which we only give a few examples of here. To learn more about our recommendations, please read the full report‘s last section “Long-term recovery from the pandemic – build forward better with nature“.

Policy makers

As COVID-19 is having lasting effects and imposing a one-year delay on the international policy calendar, there is a unique opportunity to step back and reintroduce nature in policy, governance and economic models. This also creates the opportunity to take a systems approach to policy that makes explicit the connections between climate, nature and health, as well as the socio-economic trade-offs. A few bold moves were made in 2020 that should inspire the international policy agenda, such as the City of Amsterdam’s adoption of the “doughnut economics” approach to build forward better, or the high level recommendations from a group of 21 non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations (including WBCSD) with mandates at the nexus of environmental protection, nature conservation and the promotion of sustainable development, aimed at policy makers to guide them on the required nature-positive COVID-19 economic recovery.


Eating is the human activity that has the greatest combined impact on climate change, nature loss and human health. A wide range of literature highlights the co-benefits of reducing the amount of meat humans consume on planetary and human health. Moreover, there has been ample evidence that being overweight or obese or having a non-communicable disease, which are often related with poor diets, increases the risks associated with COVID-19, including severe and fatal forms. Various signals in consumption patterns seem to indicate that some consumers have changed their habits due to COVID-19. Consumers have also been increasingly requesting transparency from business in terms of the environmental and socioeconomic footprints of specific products and thus indirectly of contributions to planetary boundary transgressions. Yet it is still too early to conclude if these recent trends will be lasting and will spread, nor even will keep moving towards better health and sustainability.


Business has a critical role to play alongside governments and consumers in navigating Earth systems back to their safe operating space. This became obvious after the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Building forward better is about much more than corporate social responsibility: it is about truly aligning markets with the natural, social and economic systems on which they depend. It is about building real resilience, driving equitable and sustainable growth, and reinventing capitalism itself.

Why we need to stop procrastinating

Many of the players considered above have too many good reasons to procrastinate, whereas planetary boundaries and the dashboard above show we have no further time left.

Some of these good reasons are related to ignorance, perceived insufficient scientific consensus or lack of trust in science. Nevertheless, and despite the large consensual set of evidence showing that nature loss is the first driver of COVID-19 emergence, only a few see this strong correlation. The best proof of this is this year’s WEF Global Risks Report that separately rates infectious diseases, climate action failure and other environmental risks among the highest impact risks of the next decade, despite evidence of the inter-relation of these risks, and that it is environmental risks that drive infectious diseases.

The other part of these “good reasons” is that the change in mindset or ‘software’ it requires for policy-makers, consumers and business is close to a ‘Copernican revolution’! When one considers the dashboard above, it is pretty obvious that the ‘blue path’ is driven by our consumption model, driven by the myth of an infinite economic growth. A good example is the many times I heard last year policy-makers or businesses telling me: “Stopping deforestation now? You’re not serious! We can’t change our model that fast / we need to feed the world. We could reasonably think of it between 2025 and 2030″.

Our next challenge is therefore, whether we are policy-makers, consumers or business, no less than to invent a new economic model that will ensure wealth of 9 billion people in 2050 while driving us back as fast as possible to the safe operating space represented by the bottom-left green triangle of our dashboard. COVID-19 dramatically demands a rapid trajectory change towards this safe operating space – there is clearly no time left to further procrastinate. Tomorrow will be too late, but we know how to fix it, and once again, transforming our food system may be the best recipe..

I would welcome your suggestions here on how to develop this new nature-based economic model !


About alainjbvidal

A convener, connector, strategist, scientist, father and grandfather. Passionate about translating science for business and governments, for food and nature systems transformation. In 2021, I set up my own freelance operations, working mostly as independent science advisor to the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) Coalition, and expert for the Zeus & Gaïa platform of experts in ecological transition, advising companies at C-Suite level on how environmental science can guide their ecological transition. After a decade long researcher career in Morocco and France, I worked with FAO before returning to Cemagref from 2003 to 2009 as its Director of European and International Affairs. In 2009, I joined CGIAR, the coordination of international agricultural research, as the Director of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food, then in 2014, as the Director of Strategic Partnerships of the CGIAR Consortium. I moved to the private sector in 2018 as Food & Nature Science and Partnerships Director with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), where I was involved in the design of OP2B. With an agricultural and environmental engineer degree from AgroParisTech, and a PhD in Water Sciences and Bioclimatology from the University of Montpellier, I have authored and co-authored more than forty refereed papers. I am now both a Consulting Professor with AgroParisTech and a freelance consultant.
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