• In China's recovery to COVID-19, it can take the lead in environmental action.
  • The country can take concrete measures to balance environmental and commercial interests.
  • Humanity has an unprecedented opportunity to transition to a carbon-neutral and nature-positive global economy.

The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is having undeniable human and economic impacts. China has been hit hard by the virus but, as one of the first countries to see a decline in the rate of infections, also has a leadership opportunity in the post-COVID-19 future. A focus on nature could provide opportunities to recover from this pandemic, as well as prevent future such crises.

While no conclusive link has been made with COVID-19, some evidence shows that loss of habitat and the illegal wildlife trade could lead to an increase in animal-borne, so-called zoonotic, diseases. This raises important questions about the interlinkage of biodiversity loss and the resilience of interconnected supply chains in the global economy.

Healthy ecosystems can support economic growth, societal wellbeing and climate stabilization. As such, while encroachment and the misuse of nature is increasingly being thought of as a source of future pandemics, nature also offers solutions that we desperately need to recover from this crisis and to build our resilience to face others.

Last week, more than 500 top business leaders, government representatives, and scholars met at the World Economic Forum’s China Business Roundtable (CBR) to discuss how to deal with this rapidly-changing reality and ensure a stable post-COVID recovery. China’s philosophy of an Ecological Civilization, enshrined in the 2018 Chinese constitution and also the theme of the UN CBD COP15 puts forward an ambitious vision that could provide a broad framework within which to assess and calibrate humanity’s current relationship with nature and a vision of a harmonization between environmental and commercial interests.

China was not always seen as an environmental leader. However, in the early 2010s after a year of severe smog in 2011/12 dubbed “airpocalypse,” the Government of China initiated a large national action plan to combat air pollution and other environmental challenges. It is around this time that the government also began the China Ecological Conservation Red Line (ECRL) initiative to protect more than one-quarter of the Chinese mainland — an area almost the size of France, Spain, Turkey, Germany and Italy combined, totalling more than 2.4 million square kilometres.

The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is causing business and government leaders to make difficult decisions. We are at a turning point where we cannot go back to business-as-usual and instead must use this opportunity to transition to a carbon-neutral and nature-positive global economy.

While initial investments and stimulus packages should rightly be focused on human health, livelihoods, resilience and the most vulnerable, we must find a way to invest in new opportunities that are nature-positive and not go back to old business models with an unsustainable relation with the environment as a mere externality.

Image: World Economic Forum

Initiatives such China’s Grain for Green Programme, Natural Forest Protection Programme, National Park System and Ecological Function Zoning provide significant learnings as the world looks to adopting clear policies forest protection, restoration and sustainable management. An equally important measure undertaken by China is to establish a national accounting system of natural capital and ecosystem services. Such continued investment in nature could shift our understanding of nature-related risks and opportunities and could serve to prevent future economic, health and environmental crises.

Intact nature can provide business opportunities and cost-effective nature-based solutions to many of society’s problems. For example, the Food and Land-use Coalition’s recent report found that transitions in the food and land-use sector could provide $4.5 trillion a year in new business opportunities by 2030 while preventing trillions of dollars’ worth of social and environmental harms.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Businesses are more dependent on nature than previously thought, with over half of the world’s GDP moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. China has the highest absolute amount of GDP in nature-dependent sectors in the world at $2.7 trillion. China’s GDP is 20% highly dependent on nature, 38% medium dependent on nature and 41% low dependent on nature.