Nature is crucial for our survival, our mental health, and also our economy, argues WWF’s Gareth Redmond-King
What’s helping you get through this weird, unsettling, and sometimes downright scary period? Sourdough starters, Zoom drinks, online theatre, Joe Wicks’ PE sessions, Netflix… whatever it is, and whatever combination, in whatever time you happen to have available to you, it seems as though we’ve all been putting together our own package of coping mechanisms.
Part of my coping package involves nature and its positive impact on my mental health. I’m lucky enough to have outside space at home and I have my bike set up on a turbo trainer so that I can do my ‘commute’ each morning in the garden. Going outside, I can hear birds in the trees around – sounding louder, but that could be because it’s spring. Half an hour’s brisk cycle, I can look up through ever greener trees, into a deep blue sky. I’m joined variously by blue tits (two of whom are scoping out our nest box), a parakeet, robins, a goldfinch, wood pigeons, great tits, crows, magpies and squirrels.
We’ve seen stories in recent weeks of nature expanding into space briefly abandoned by humans during lockdown. The magnificent Llandudno mountain goats were my favourite. But we’ve also seen pictures of lions and elephants enjoying the warmth of unused tarmac roads in South Africa’s Kruger National park, watched clips of curious deer wandering suburban streets, and heard that giant pandas in Hong Kong’s zoo have rediscovered passion for one another in the absence of their usual visitors.
These all, to some extent, give us some small insight into how we – humans – encroach on wildlife, squeezing the space available for nature. Sure, nature is all around us, wherever we live – trees, birds etc. But the way we are living is encroaching in a much broader sense. There are few bigger than the impact of our food system on the planet’s forests – being lost at a rate of a football pitch every two seconds to make way for grazing land and to grow food for livestock. That loss shrinks the space available for wildlife to thrive and slashes at a crucial bit of Earth’s ecosystem – with knock on impacts for oxygen production, carbon storage, and weather patterns. It makes the climate crisis worse which, in turn diminishes other habitats all over the planet – loss of sea ice driving polar species closer to humans, temperature rises changing, moving, and therefore narrowing the range of pollinators and cold-dwelling species which retreat further up mountains.
We need to value nature – not least because we are part of it; we’re not separate from it, and we don’t own it. We need to protect nature’s balance in order that we can survive long into the future. Every breath of air, every bite of food, every drop of water to keep us alive – all are provided by nature, and all are being squeezed and diminished as we degrade and destroy natural systems.
Writing in a beautiful book called The Future We Choose, architects of the Paris Agreement Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac describe a future in 2050 where we have made the right choices and kept global warming to 1.5C. As part of that picture, they describe cities crammed with trees – surrounding us with greenery, cleaning the air we breathe, locking carbon dioxide away in the ground, and making these places good for our physical and our mental health.
Just imagine that. Imagine a world where we’re fostering the natural systems around us – regenerating them, re-wilding degraded space, creating space in which people and wildlife can thrive together. This is not, as Figueres and Rivett-Carnac stress, describing how they navigated the world to Paris, a zero-sum game in which we must choose between space for nature and space for people. We share this space, and we need to share it far, far better than now.
We have a necessary, and understandable delay to the next climate COP, which was due to take place in November, in Glasgow. But it will still happen. And it must still be the place where world leaders ramp up individual and collective climate ambition and action to fulfil the aim of Paris, to keep warming to 1.5 degrees – to achieve the promise of that sustainable future.
Part of that action and ambition – as much as a third, globally – can rely on nature; on nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. Trees, wetlands, seagrasses, peatlands, mangrove forests, soils and oceans – they all, when tended, protected and expanded, can absorb carbon. We must cut our emissions too; but re-wilding and protecting these systems removes carbon. In doing so, we expand habitats, restore ecosystems, redress the balance of nature. Here in the UK – with just 13 per cent forest cover (it’s 31 per cent globally) – we must plant at least 30,000 hectares of trees per year, doubling that rate by the 2030s. And of many things we’re learning from this public health crisis, one is that nature delivers more for us than just climate mitigation.
Doing this is good for us. Nature is good for us. And not just for our air, water and food, but also for the beauty of our world and what that does for our mental health. And it’s good for our economies. The ‘ecosystem services’ which nature provides alongside carbon storage – crop pollination, flood and coastal erosion protection, timber, food etc – are worth a fortune. Recent WWF analysis suggests that to deplete nature at current rates could cost the planet $10tr by 2050; if we conserve, those systems offer instead a net-gain of $490bn a year to global GDP.
So why wouldn’t we? I really don’t know why – but please ask that question of your MP, your local authority, businesses you use and work with, and really, everyone you can think of who can play a part in shifting how we think about and interact with the natural systems around us.
And in the meantime, find the little pockets of nature around you and enjoy them even for short periods; the science tells us they really can help you feel better.
Gareth Redmond-King is head of climate change at WWF UK