Necessary Transformations: How are global policy efforts responding to the challenge of biodiversity loss? What is the role of investors?

Biodiversity loss

In February 2021, Preventable Surprises held a week-long online dialogue to set an investor agenda for biodiversity loss. In this Chatham House-rule, text-only online format, participants were invited to discuss and respond to a series of  “provocations” – short texts written by leading experts, designed to yield creative thinking, test the wisdom of the crowd and challenge the status quo. We are publishing these provocations on our blog this month in an effort to broaden this conversation.


By Prof. Dr. Josef Settele, Co-Chair of IPBES global Assessment; Dept. of Conservation Biology and Social-Ecological Systems, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Halle, Germany


Especially in the times of Covid-19, it becomes obvious that global policy efforts responding to the challenge of biodiversity loss are not getting to the point. Policies are far too much oriented at curing symptoms while largely ignoring the direct and indirect causes.

As already stated in April 2020, we must ensure the strengthening and enforcement of environmental regulations – and only deploy stimulus packages that offer incentives for more sustainable and nature-positive activities. It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transportation such as the airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change, essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics.

We indeed should adopt a ‘One Health’ approach at all levels of decision-making – from the global to the most local – recognizing the complex interconnections among the health of people, animals, plants and our shared environment. Forestry departments, for example, usually set policy related to deforestation, and profits accrue largely to the private sector – but it is public health systems and local communities that often pay the price of resulting disease outbreaks. A One Health approach would ensure that better decisions are made that take into account long-term costs and consequences of development actions – for people and nature.

Perhaps most importantly, we need transformative change – the kind highlighted in the IPBES Global Assessment Report (the one that found a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in coming decades) in 2019: fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, promoting social and environmental responsibilities across all sectors. As daunting and costly as this may sound – it pales in comparison to the price we are already paying to cure the symptoms of the pandemic.

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis calls for us all to confront the vested interests that oppose transformative change, and to end ‘business as usual’. We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us.

There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.  

A core element for changes towards sustainable production and consumption includes introducing regulations aimed at internalizing the external costs of production, extraction and consumption (such as pricing wasteful or polluting practices, including through penalties); promoting resource efficiency and circular and other economic models; voluntary environmental and social certification of market chains; and incentives that promote sustainable practices and innovation.


  • How can we incentive firms and investors to support policy that moves in the direction of transformative change?
  • What are options for and attitudes of firms to internalize the external costs of production, extraction and consumption? Is it even feasible to expect the private sector to question the business model from which it seems to have profited so much? 
  • How can investors contribute to protecting land, for example setting aside 30% for nature? 
  • What geographic hotspots should investor efforts focus on?
  • How can investors support the Global Convention on Biodiversity? What message should they bring to the October 2021 UN Biodiversity Conference?
  • How can investors build productive relationships with governments to support (and not lobby against) constructive policies?
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