Global Cooperation

Nature and health crises are interconnected – this is how we can tackle them together

Nature loss is connected to health and longevity so solutions must address both crises.

Nature loss is connected to health and longevity so solutions must address both crises. Image: Unsplash

Sarah Chapman
Global Chief Sustainability Officer, Manulife
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Global Cooperation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Loss of nature and biodiversity doesn’t just affect the environment, it can also destroy the health of people and economies.
  • As a result, people are leading less healthy lives, even if life expectancy is growing. This health and longevity problem also has societal and economic consequences.
  • Halting these interconnected nature and health crises will require solutions targeting investment, innovation and insurance.

Biodiversity is degrading faster than at any time in history, driving poor environmental, economic and human health outcomes. At the same time, exposure to urban air pollution has been proven to contribute to cognitive decline and increased risks of dementia, while drinking-water contamination has been shown to elevate risks of chronic diseases, and exposure to heat stress contributes to higher mortality.

On the other hand, people are living longer, but not healthier, lives. The extra years spent in poor health as we age will drain societal resources, put families in harm's way and place growing stress on our healthcare systems.

We will all pay the price – both literally and figuratively – if the loss of nature and biodiversity is not halted and if the health and longevity crisis is not addressed.

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The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report shows the inextricable links between these existential threats. It provides a striking snapshot of the phenomenon of interconnected causality. This concept explains how the climate crisis fuels issues such as ecosystem collapse and resource scarcity. It also sheds light on how ecological decline feeds into social polarization and disharmony, which have immense effects on human wellbeing, health and longevity.

Image: World Economic Forum

Driving positive change amid this interconnected causality landscape will take three “i’s”: investment, innovation and insurance.

Investment: natural capital and change at scale

Natural capital is the Earth’s balance sheet. Research shows the assets on this ledger have been outweighed by liabilities every year since records began. Excessive ecological consumption has become a grim norm.

Many studies have highlighted the relationship between the health of nature and the health of people and societies. So, investments in nature are investments in people, because they help improve our quality of life.

At the same time, the funding gap is immense. Projecting figures to 2050 and taking into account renewable energy sources, industry, waste, wastewater, transport, buildings and other infrastructure, law firm Allen & Overy recently calculated a staggering $200 trillion shortfall.

However, the opportunity to address this funding gap by investing in solutions to enable deep, transformational change is also immense. No “technology” is more scalable than nature, and the importance of investing in natural capital assets such as sustainable timberland and agriculture has never been more urgent.

Innovation: building a longevity economy

This brings us to the second "i": innovation. Humanity has a lengthy track record of investing in innovative solutions to work its way out of trouble, and there can be no doubt that we now need to do it again.

But this begs the question: what about innovation that makes our lives truly better? This might seem like a topic best left to philosophers, but investors can’t ignore this – especially in an era of so-called “permacrisis”.

The World Economic Forum’s open innovation platform, UpLink, is valuable here. It sources innovative solutions in specific industries that achieve results and can ultimately pave the way towards a healthier, more equitable future. Financial services company Manulife recently announced a three-year partnership with Uplink, which will host annual challenges across the US, Canada and Asia to uncover world-class innovations that address the health longevity crisis.

The Longevity Economy report, recently released by the World Economic Forum, also shows how the private sector and governments can support novel ideas to drive positive change in this space. Through six underpinning principles, the report addresses the growing demographic challenges of an aging population, the financial implications this will have on the global economy, and how we must come together to produce real, tangible results to address this issue.

Innovation is not about actions taken in silos – and even less about pledges made or platitudes reiterated – it’s about outcomes achieved and the lessons learned along the way. Multiple stakeholders have to work together to identify and implement effective, lasting solutions to drive real progress and build a longevity economy.

Insurance: ensuring dignity as we age

Although progress in many fields has never been so accelerated, more individuals are struggling to spend their retirement years in comfort and dignity. Many have fallen victim to the gaping disparity between life spans and health spans. As it stands, the average person can expect to spend almost a decade – around 18% of their lifetime in ill health.

Limited wealth, inadequate health and greater longevity all have growing economic and societal costs. Ageing populations are now a global concern, posing profound questions about how to approach and fund retirement. We see tremendous potential in the fast-evolving sphere of behavioral insurance – a digitized, data-driven method that helps people live healthier, more active lives by rewarding them for making healthy lifestyle choices.

By incentivizing individuals to exercise, eat well, practice mindfulness and get regular check-ups, we can help tens of thousands of people take steps to lead to lives that are not just longer, but better.

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Nature and longevity

The fascinating intersection between natural capital and the longevity economy merits much more attention in the years ahead.

Our best hope for a genuinely sustainable future is to embrace a multi-trillion-dollar market that takes full advantage of the links between nature, the environment, and human health and longevity. Under this approach, investments in nature, innovation and insurance could deliver the largest financial and societal gains – both environmental and social – over the medium to long term.

This should be music to the ears of those who have not yet rallied to sustainability’s cause. It’s also an appeal to investors who have long championed sustainability, but who are perhaps disappointed by what has been accomplished to date. While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Global CooperationHealth and HealthcareNature and BiodiversityDavos Agenda
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