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The Next Economy
Polycrises Threatening Planetary Health Cannot Be Addressed in Silos

As The Lancet warns in a new report, failing to consider interactions between climate, biodiversity and infectious disease will not address the fundamental issues affecting each — and the consequences will be 'exponentially more expensive.'

A new report published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal found that intergovernmental reports on climate change and biodiversity loss fail to consider the complex, non-linear interactions among climate, biodiversity and infectious disease.

“The concurrent pressures of rising global temperatures, rates and incidence of species decline, and the emergence of infectious diseases represent an unprecedented planetary crisis,” the report reads. “Intergovernmental reports have drawn focus to the escalating climate and biodiversity crises and the connections between them, but interactions among all three pressures have been largely overlooked. Non-linearities and dampening and reinforcing interactions among pressures make considering interconnections essential to anticipating planetary challenges.”

Out of nearly two million research papers written on climate change, biodiversity and disease, only 29 papers quantify the impacts of all three levers.

“There is now a pressing need to investigate the expansion and effects of disease in humans, domestic animals, wildlife and plants as primary and secondary drivers and as a consequence of biodiversity–climate relations,” the report says.

Jonathan Davies, a professor in the Department of Botany and Forest and Conservation Science at the University of British Columbia, was the senior researcher on the new paper. Its findings, he told Sustainable Brands®, sound a warning against putting global problems and their “solutions” in silos.

“This is the fundamental issue: If no non-linearities or no complex cycles were feeding back into the different pressures, we could treat every pressure individually and generate responses to those pressures without consideration of other pressures. [But] we're recognizing now that these crises shouldn't be siloed,” Davies said. “They should be thought of together — and we're looking at the sort of solution pathways, policy and societal pathways that can help address those interactions between those crises. This paper is … part of that movement — a rallying cry, really emphasizing the need to do this, to move away outside our silos and get a bit uncomfortable.”

One example is the case of the rinderpest virus carried to Africa by European livestock — which spread to wildlife, killing off millions of wildebeest. The savannah, untrammeled by the usual millions of wildebeest hooves, produced heavier vegetative growth — becoming a tinder box for the drought-prone region. Vaccinating cattle against rinderpest leads to fewer crossovers to wildlife, higher wildebeest numbers, fewer fires and decreased emissions.

“There are a huge number of causal pathways, some of which you have to tease apart,” Davies said. “The emphasis on this [report] is that you need to consider those causal pathways when you're looking for solutions to these crises … that helps you both avoid these sorts of ecological surprises — these unintended consequences where you exacerbate a pressure accidentally — and also allows you identify win-win-win situations.”

In the case of carbon credits, certifying bodies and customers should consider whether forestry-based carbon credits are better achieved through protecting old-growth forests or planting new forests. A holistic approach may reveal that efforts should be concentrated on maintaining old-growth forests, which are excellent carbon sinks and provide dizzying biodiversity benefits.

“If we think about all the benefits biodiversity provides us, not just the CO2 benefits, the value of biodiversity incorporated into these calculations might shift our decision making from ‘should we just plant trees?’” Davies pointed out.

Businesses usually narrowly focus on factors that fit neatly into a quarterly or annual report. Considering such factors as biodiversity and ecosystem services in business reporting is a very recent phenomenon. However, eco-benefits go beyond prescribed worth — so, these and other benefits should be equalized and included in reporting, especially risk disclosures.

“In the business world, it's attractive to put everything in a dollar amount,” Davies said. “So, if we do that [biodiversity accounting], we can incorporate some of these ecosystem services into the value of natural habitats and biodiversity.”

Identifying those points is critical, he continued, in creating a socio-economic-ecological system that uses science and heart to live within planetary boundaries and respect its pre-existing life-support systems.

Zoonotic disease spillover, he continued, is just one of a myriad of the things the market rarely, if ever, values. COVID, itself a zoonotic disease, was just the beginning. Davies affirms we must expect and prepare for the possibility of zoonotic diseases happening more often as development spreads and wildlife is further cornered into degraded habitats. Ignoring connectivity between systems means missing the opportunity to target the root cause of pressure, instead of simply treating the symptoms of the polycrisis.

“These are all things that need to be done, but they're not getting at the root cause of why we're seeing the greater storm surges or increased spillover [of disease],” he said. “By failing to consider these interactions and just responding to the more proximate impacts that we're observing, we're not going to solve the fundamental issues and it's going to become exponentially more expensive.”

Identifying connections won’t be easy and will require a coordinated effort on a global scale. Admittedly, it’s not something humans are particularly good at doing, but it’s necessary to prepare for a warming world and mitigate its impacts. As Davies pointed out, you don’t have to travel to a remote cave in China to find the next potential pandemic: SARS-like viruses have been discovered in bats in the United Kingdom, which could be just one disaster or system change away from becoming the next pandemic.

“We don't like those complicated answers, but I think we need to embrace them more and prioritize them,” Davies asserts. “We need lots of data and we need sophisticated models … And we're just at a time where we have that sort of data coming in — [such as] on-the-ground and-remote sensing data.”

Failure to address these global connections is why we’ve failed to stay on track with global targets such as those set in the Paris Agreement and Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Targets that emerged from COP15.

“Every time we set ourselves a target, we've missed it,” Davies said. “We've got to ask ourselves why, and how can we make sure we're not just setting up … another target we're going to miss? How do we set targets and identify the solutions pathways so we can actually meet them? That's the big goal — so, we need a new approach.”