Counting on nature: our most powerful asset

UN Development Programme
5 min readDec 16, 2022


Photo: Shutterstock

We are facing the sixth mass extinction. In the past 50 years, nature has declined more extensively than at any other time in human history, destabilizing the whole planet. Up to 1 million species on Earth are threatened, and every day, we lose another 200 species.

Today, we need 1.6 Earths to maintain humanity’s current way of life.

But our planet is not a victim — it is fragile only because it is finite. The delicate balance of planetary boundaries gift us a survivable environment that is utterly unique in the vast, inhospitable space beyond our atmosphere.

Humanity will pay the ultimate price for the destruction of our environment. We depend heavily on nature not just for our survival but also to maintain our global economic systems. An estimated US$44 trillion — around half of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 — is dependent on nature to supply everything from food to pharmaceutical products.

Biodiversity provides primary medicines for 4 billion people worldwide; agrobiodiversity improves the lives of 1 billion people who are under-nourished; and ocean biodiversity supplies 4.3 billion people with 15 percent of their annual protein.

In the face of combined and integrated threats facing humanity of nature loss, climate change, poverty, inequality and insecurity, solutions found in nature account for one third of our most cost-effective climate solutions.

We know the facts. Why don’t we act?

We know that degrading ecosystems could trigger a downward spiral of $2.7 trillion in global gross domestic product by 2030.

A small investment in biodiversity is helping to mitigate the effects of drought in Madagascar. Photos: UNDP Madagascar/Ramananjafy Randrianandrasana and Ramatoulaye Moussa Mazou

Some fear that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic progress and gain. But on the contrary, investing in nature can bring powerful dividends.

Mangroves reduce annual flooding for more than 18 million people worldwide, protecting 39 percent more people from annual floods and preventing damages of an estimated $82 billion annually.

Restoring 350 million hectares of forests and landscape will generate about $170 billion per year in net benefits from watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products, while sequestering 1.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.

Restoring forests pays dividends by enhancing their ability to sequester carbon. Photo: Shutterstock

Large-scale changes in the food, infrastructure and energy sectors to actively protect nature could create $10 trillion in annual business value and 395 million jobs by 2030. Forests alone produce more than 5,000 types of wood-based products, generating an annual gross value of just over $600 billion — just under 1 percent of global GDP.

Putting money to work for and not against nature

Meanwhile, subsidies that damage nature — including fossil fuel and agricultural fertilizer subsidies — cost the world between $4 trillion and $6 trillion a year. The worldwide loss of all pollinators including bees and butterflies alone can lead to a drop in annual agricultural output of about $217 billion.

Zambia’s 7,000 square metre national medical warehouse is reaping the benefits of solar power, with the support of UNDP and the Norwegian Emergency Preparedness System. Solar panels are currently cooling approximately half of the warehouse space providing uninterrupted power for the refrigeration of life-saving medicines and vaccines. Photos: UNDP/ Karin Schermbrucker for Slingshot

Removing fossil fuel subsidies also discourages fossil energy consumption and reduces carbon emissions. Funds could be spent on pro-poor policies such as health safety nets which address inequality rather than perpetuate it by supporting the wealthier in society.

In 2021, $700 billion was spent on explicit fossil fuel subsidies — this same amount could be used to plug the financial gap to achieve the global biodiversity framework, including the critical 30x30 target to protect a third of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030.

Inclusion and leadership from communities on the frontline

Nelson Ole Reiyia began campaigning for the preservation of the Maasai Mara when he started seeing more and more electric fences carving up the landscape. Photo: Nashulai Maasai Conservancy/Nora Nord

“Conservation can work when people are involved, and not when they are pushed out.” — Nelson Ole Reiyia, co-founder of the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy and Equator Prize winner.

Indigenous people and local communities are critical to ensure any biodiversity targets can be implemented. Collectively, they manage almost 50 percent of the world’s lands. More biodiversity is sustained and greater conservation results achieved as a result of their stewardship than in government-protected areas.

Yet indigenous people and local communities hold legal rights to only 10 percent of the world’s territory. Only 17 percent of global climate and conservation funding intended for Indigenous and local communities goes to projects led by Indigenous peoples. Indigenous women receive even less: roughly 5 percent of total global funding.

Partnerships for progress on protection of nature

UNDP has launched the UNDP Nature Pledge to support communities at every level, including Indigenous people, with new funding totaling $189 million to support more than 140 countries around the world to meet and implement their ambitious nature and biodiversity targets under the new global biodiversity framework.

An endangered jaguar cub in Mexico. Photo: UNDP Mexico

The Pledge leverages a $3.2 billion nature portfolio across the continents, complemented with on-the-ground support, to put nature at the heart of economic opportunities, aligning development priorities with a thriving planet. It will catalyze shifts: at policy level, economically and socially through the perception we hold and stories we tell about nature.

Through UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN), support in more than 40 countries is already shifting the perception that nature is an asset — with proof. In Mexico for example, a national climate fund not previously operational nor focusing on biodiversity saw turnover exceed $3 million, with $2 million directed back into building ecosystem resilience.

The narrative that economic gain is worth the cost of our natural assets belongs to the last century. Nature’s loss comes at too great a cost to humanity. Instead we must invest in, protect and sustainably manage humanity’s most valuable asset. We are all counting on nature for a thriving future on a healthy planet.