Climate Change

WWF Global Futures pushes ‘nature-based solutions’ agenda

They are not only a distraction from reducing consumption and decarbonising all sectors of the domestic economy, but also promise to intensify hardships for the poor in developing countries

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Monday 17 February 2020
Coal-fired plants across Europe are being converted to burn wood pellets. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The recent Global Futures report estimated that the world economy will lose $10 trillion between 2011 and 2050 due to the loss of ecosystem services — equivalent to what the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lost in the decade since 2008, when the economic meltdown started.

According to the report, the loss of ecosystem services will result in a 2050 GDP 0.67 per cent lower than if such loss were prevented. That may be compared the National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimate of the cost of Boris Johnson’s October Brexit deal at 3.5 per cent of the British economy within just the next 10 years.  

Of course, the true economic cost of ecosystem services loss will be much greater than this estimate; as the report admits, it only considers those services for which there is enough evidence to quantify monetary value, and neglects potential tipping points that could lead to catastrophes.

The report was published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in association with the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) and the Nature Capital Project.

The report’s model is not designed to capture the economic impacts of all environmental changes that the planet is undergoing, just those associated with changes in specific natural assets. To be clear, the $10 trillion cost between 2011 and 2050 is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the economic impact of climate change.

The report uses a global trade model developed by GTAP, a network of researchers based at Purdue University, as well as InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs), a suite of 20 ecosystem service models developed by the Nature Capital Project, a network headquartered at Stanford University. The modelling approach is based on the established but controversial concept of ecosystem services — the benefits we get from nature and which underpins human well-being. 

The report considers the impact on six ecosystem services using these models to calculate the headline figures.

The results indicate important distributional effects, with the GDP loss much higher in poor countries such as India, and low in rich countries.

 Unequal impact of ecosystem services loss (Loss in 2050 GDP) 



Source: WWF 2020, Global Futures

This inequality is likely to be even worse. The report not only neglects climatic tipping points, but also the potential social and economic tipping points in resource-poor developing countries due to climate change. The loss of ecosystem services in poor countries that are more dependent on them, could be catastrophic.

Policy agenda on biomass

However, the object of this estimation is not to defeat those sceptical of the climate emergency with bad news as is usually the case. The report is “primarily aimed at decision-makers in governments (for instance, heads of state, ministries of finance / planning, advisors) and the private sector (for example, banks, businesses and investors)”.

Important in this context is the sixth and the last of the report’s key findings: The loss of ecosystem services has significant risks for all sectors in interconnected economies through knock-on effects. Increases in global prices for key commodities will lead to supply chain disruptions, reduced margins, increased costs and reduced profitability affecting investor confidence.

The projections for timber, cotton, oil seeds, fruit and vegetables were considered important enough to be mentioned in the report's Executive Summary.

The report notes that the loss of habitats that provide carbon storage services will be among the greatest costs to the global economy. Among its key recommendations are integrating ‘nature-based solutions’ into climate change strategies, particularly for companies to deliver promised emissions reductions.

The emphases on companies (rather than countries) as well as on ‘nature-based solutions’ are also key to the UK’s seven-point CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan; both were also highlighted by the sacked British CoP president Claire Perry O’Neill in New Delhi and the speech by Charles, Prince of Wales, at Davos.

The phrase ‘nature-based solutions’ is of fairly recent origin even in scholarly literature. Mentions of the phrase as measured on Google Scholar have sky-rocketed since 2015, with mentions in the first month-and-a-half alone of 2020 higher than mentions in 2016, itself about equal to the total number in the previous five years.

The grave issues that arise from relying on trees as a panacea against climate change have been emphasised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year in its special report on Climate Change and LandDown To Earth has also highlighted that carbon sequestered in forests, when internationally traded as credits in carbon markets, has the potential to completely pervert global climate action.

But the emphasis on the trade in nature-based solutions goes beyond the imperative carbon sequestration. Charles’s Sustainable Markets Initiative launched at Davos, centered on nature-based solutions, emphasising that nature’s contribution to the global economy, which he valued at more than the current global GDP, if “built into asset bases and supply chains”, could make for significant growth opportunities for countries and businesses.

Charles’ specific emphasis was on wood — “the most versatile natural material on the planet” — which can be transformed into eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, chemicals, textiles, transport and construction. The European Commission’s Green Deal announced in December 2019, also emphasised that demand for biomass would grow in a low-carbon economy.

Biomass no answer 

Indeed, it already has. The European Union (EU) is a leading importer of palm oil to process into biodiesel from Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm cultivation is fuelling deforestation. Led by the UK, coal-fired plants across the continent are being converted to burn wood pellets.

Traditionally not an internationally traded commodity; wood pellet production and trade has mushroomed overnight, with production more than doubling since 2010 as a result of EU demand. The bloc is the world's largest market and its imports alone account for nearly a fourth of global production.

A recent analysis by Sandbag, a London-based think-tank, has estimated that if all the coal-to-biomass conversion projects currently planned across the EU are built, they will require an area equal to all the forests in the Netherlands to be chopped down annually.

More worrying: As emissions from wood burning are released into the atmosphere in minutes, but will take decades to sequester again, forest biomass fuels may actually lead to an increase in emissions within timescales relevant to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The European Green Deal seeks to ensure that the “EU's forest sink and other ecosystem services do not decline" as a result of the biomass demand. But the fact is, most of Europe’s biomass is supplied by other countries, in the continuing tradition of the colonial ghost acres which backed European industrialisation. The demand for wood pellets is already pushing forests in the US south to their breaking point.

Recent initiatives such as this WWF Report, Charles’ Sustainable Markets Initiative as well as the Global Resources Initiative taskforce appointed by the British government emphasise the sustainability of supply chains of developed-country companies.

But the fact is, however certified such chains may be, like during the colonial era, what is fueling environmental destruction is not the unsustainability of one or other supply chain but the cumulative impact of all demand, in which the EU is playing a leading role.

Consumption the real problem

As the Global Futures report notes without comment, “consumption growth is putting ever increasing pressures on our natural environment”.  As Denmark’s Council on Climate Change has noted, European levels of biomass consumption would be unsustainable if “repeated on a global scale”.

The emphasis on a transition to biomass, seldom sustainably sourced, represents an attempt to get away from the imperative of reducing consumption, particularly in developed countries.

Biomass represents a larger share of the total material consumed by the poor in developing countries, compared to the rich in developed countries. As the poor consume an order of magnitude lesser material overall, their biomass consumption is nevertheless less than that of rich, even as they live in what the pioneering Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal called a “biomass-based subsistence economy”. 

Fast-disappearing biomass from forests is invaluable to the lives, livelihoods and the very existence of the poor in developing countries. It is unlikely that they will be able to compete for fuel-wood and other resources with developed countries. And developing countries simply have no space to expand forestry.

In that context, it is no surprise that the push on forestry is being led by Charles and the WWF, of which he was once president and which was founded by his father Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Big game conservation projects led by these institutions have displaced people across the poor world in a tragedy that has given rise to the phrase New Imperialism. Through nature-based solutions, the consumption-blind species conservation approach to the environment is appropriating the discourse of climate action.

In this, the British species conservation establishment has been joined by climate-skeptic-in-chief Donald Trump who has extended support to the WWF’s Trillion Trees project.

‘Nature-based solutions’ promises to be a key catchphrase on the road to the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nationas Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland, this year.

Outside of a very limited context, it is not only a distraction from the more urgent climate agenda of reducing consumption and decarbonising all sectors of the domestic economy, but also promises to intensify the trend of consumption in developed countries fueling hardships for the poor in developing countries.

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