Political and business leaders are prioritising action on nature like never before, but can this sudden uptick in engagement be translated into tangible progress?
Nature is having something of a moment. Obviously, this is an absurd point to make given nature was having a moment for millions of years before anyone called it nature and will likely continue enjoy itself in some form or another long after humans are done with it. But if you'll forgive me the parochial anthropocentrism it is clear we are experiencing one of those periodic occasions when nature nudges itself up the political agenda and takes its rightful place at the heart of our collective discourse.
The big question now is can this moment be seized to try and properly address the myriad crises the natural world faces and accelerate the transition to a net zero emission and regenerative economy that works in balance with the natural assets that underpin it?
The good news is there are, at last, some causes for cautious optimism. A wide array of trends and technologies have combined to ensure that nature is finally being given due consideration. The pandemic and its accompanying rolling lockdowns have triggered both a collective appreciation of nature and a renewed respect for the catastrophic risks it can unleash. The crisis has provided a tragic real world case study to elucidate our fast-maturing academic and corporate understanding of natural capital's critical role as the foundation of our society - a trend explored in our feature this week from Isabella Kaminski ahead of next week's Net Zero Nature Summit (which you can still register for here).
Meanwhile, the global embrace of net zero targets has shone a spotlight on nature's vital role as a carbon sink that has to be rapidly expanded if net zero pledges are to be honoured. This focus on the importance on so-called nature-based solutions has catalysed all sorts of crucial policy debates over how to mobilise investment in nature protection and ensure ecosystem services are both nurtured and maximised - conversations that were previously consigned to sparsely read environmental think tank white papers.
These policy debates have been further advanced by technological progress that for once is focused on protecting and enhancing, rather than despoiling and exploiting nature. Satellite tracking, advanced sensors, lab grown meats, and regenerative agriculture are all starting to sketch out how a modern economy could continue to prosper while rolling back its physical footprint on the natural world.
At the UK level, Brexit has its many detractors but one of the potential upsides of the departure from the EU has been the rupture with its Common Agricultural Policy and the freedom it gives the UK government to craft a more dynamic and nature-centric farming policy. It remains to be seen whether the UK will seize this opportunity and there are plenty of legitimate fears that the government could yet water down environmental protections. But as evidenced by this weekend's flurry of announcements from Defra and Ofwat covering everything from peat compost bans and tree planting targets to river rewilding and nature corridors there is a renewed understanding within Whitehall of the importance of nature policy.
The hope is that the UK - which has historically had a pretty terrible record on nature protection and boasts some of the world's the most environmentally despoiled habitats - can team up with a growing number of environmentally progressive jurisdictions and companies at this autumn's UN Biodiversity and Climate Summits to showcase how nature restoration and a rapid net zero transition can, and indeed must, go hand in hand.
And then there are more intangible components of the current moment - the sense that as storms and heatwaves become more extreme, as flood waters rise, and as wildfires rage our attempts to insulate ourselves from the ravages of nature are failing. That we have become too detached from the natural world of which we are a part. What is the surge in interest in re-wilding and the growing understanding of the way interaction with nature can bolster our mental well-being, if not a cry for a better relationship between the human sphere and the natural world on which it rests? How can we explain the sense of delight and wonder sparked by those all too rare instances of nature recovery, if not through the gratifying understanding that a better and safer world is possible?
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to fear this moment will be squandered. Essentially extractive industries remain powerfully entrenched, numerous biodiversity indicators are still in freefall, the post-pandemic recovery will undoubtedly trigger a new wave of nature-trashing consumerism. Fears that a handful of successful nature restoration projects could be used as cover for the continuation of polluting business models are entirely justified. Meanwhile, attempts to curtail the destruction of many of the last remaining wildernesses and critical carbon sinks in developing economies are met with completely understandable accusations that rich nations and companies are engaged in a quasi-colonial condemnation of those governments and communities that are simply trying to follow the same development path pioneered by the forest-felling Global North.
But something has shifted in the past few years. Just as the current wave of net zero targets was enabled by work over a decade ago to demonstrate the essential economic wisdom of deep decarbonisation, similar work is now belatedly underway to advance political, corporate, and public understanding of the essential role of nature. We are at last, talking about these issues. The challenge now is to turn the current zeitgeist into something tangible.
Want to find out more about nature's role in the net zero transition? Then join us at next week's Net Zero Nature Summit.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.