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Jennifer Wells: Biodiversity warning shows the need for economic change

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2019-05-07 Jennifer Wells - Business Columnist
underwater view of a swimming pool: This week’s biodiversity report highlights the potential bleaching out of a third of the planet’s reef-forming coral colonies.© EMILY IRVING-SWIFT This week’s biodiversity report highlights the potential bleaching out of a third of the planet’s reef-forming coral colonies.

Let’s start a countdown to see how long it takes for big business to react.

I’m referring to the groundbreaking summary report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Economic Services. Oops, I mean Ecosystem Services.

The group, formed a mere seven years ago, should cause the scales to fall from the eyes of skeptics with its findings, the headliner being that an estimated one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction within decades if the world continues on its present path. And it aims fire directly at the urgent need to build not just a sustainable ecosystem, but a sustainable economic ecosystem.

Eduardo Brondizio, one of three co-chairs who presented the findings at a press conference in Paris on Monday, was clear and eloquent. We must, he said, of this unprecedented moment in human history, “incorporate responsibility in our economic system in a way that accounts for our whole chain, from production to consumption.”

Doing that, he continued, would require changing our narratives, both individual narratives that equate quality of life with consumption and status, and “the narratives of the economic systems that still consider that environmental degradation and social inequality are inevitable outcomes of economic growth.”

I have written enough about plastic pollution of late, and the move beyond meat, and the focus on carbon.

But consider now the threat to a third of all marine mammals and 40 per cent of amphibian species, or the potential bleaching out of a third of the planet’s reef-forming coral colonies. Ocean “dead zones” already comprise an area larger than the U.K.

It’s time to question, as this intergovernmental group does, whether the concentration on carbon emissions and reduction targets runs the risk of becoming too narrow a focus. Biodiversity, the group asserts, needs to claim equal status on the global agenda. The opportunity to halt the massive disruption is before us. Time has all but run out. The cost, of course, will fall to future generations.

It’s one thing to talk about old paradigms of economic growth, which largely remain the contemporary paradigms of economic growth. It’s quite another, as one media attendee put it to Monday’s panel, to put pressure on economic players in order to bring about that change. Brondizio framed part of the challenge neatly in his opening remarks: “A key constituent, and a hard one because of the amount of vested interests that we have, is to evolve our global and financial economic system toward a global sustainable economy.”

The federal government’s Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance has yet to release its final report. I mention this again only to point out that this group’s recommendations will signal Canada’s level of seriousness in using policy to drive what it calls “climate-resilient economic growth.”

The panel’s preliminary report noted the obvious, that Canada is navigating what sustainable economic growth means, given its historical focus on such emissions-intensive sectors as mining, oil and gas and agriculture. In this context, such climate-aware initiatives as investment funds packaging energy-efficient home renovation loans into structured securities make for easy work. The tough work will focus around what constitutes effective — and consistently reported — climate-related financial disclosure and forward-looking regulation.

We can hope that the panel, led by Tiff Macklem, former senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, will bring the international biodiversity report into its thinking, broadening its current “low carbon economy” language. We need firm, dynamic policies that urgently push beyond encouraging public pension funds to integrate environmental, sustainability and governance goals into its investment practices. Or compel banks take such risks into consideration in their lending decisions.

Robert Watson, chair of the intergovernmental group, emphasized at Monday’s press conference the need to integrate biodiversity concerns into all relevant economic sectors, be they water or energy or forestry or mining, et cetera. He called for the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies. (The report listed fossil fuel subsidies and subsidies to fisheries to maintain or increase capacity, which in turn often leads to the degradation of nature. Other economic instruments that bear examining are tax abatements and subsidized credit — even urban sprawl and wasteful use of water has fallen within the group’s scope of study.) He also highlighted the essential need to incorporate “natural capital” into accounting.

Watson is a lively speaker. He waggled his necktie, imprinted with images of a dodo bird, to make the point that the threat of extinction is real. He showed off his clock-face cufflinks to emphasize that time is of the essence. He made a plea to the world to change consumption habits.

The economic evolution required policies and tools, supported, the report notes, “by multilateral agreements and enhanced monitoring and evaluation.”

Here’s the kicker: “It would also entail a shift beyond standard economic indicators such as gross domestic product to include those able to capture more holistic, long-term views of economics and quality and life.”

That’s the paradigm shift that’s overdue. Big business: the clock’s ticking.

Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: jenwells@thestar.ca

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