A “super year” for the environment turned into a tumultuous 2020, which has changed the way we think about health and the environment. NCI chair Dr Laura Bellingan asks what new year resolutions we should be making for people and nature.

Sparkler on the backdrop of a grassy field

Tumultuous 2020

Looking forward to 2021 with hope is not surprising given the tumult of 2020. What was billed as a ‘super year’ of opportunities to improve environmental policy became a deadly reminder that we are living in a biosphere and vulnerable to the roulette wheel of evolution. The pandemic’s tragic death and illness toll, and the pauses to the gatherings and travelling we had come to think of as a vital part of life, have forced attention onto essentials including how the quality and health of our environment directly affects our own health. There are risks to be managed, including zoonoses; and steps to be taken, including improving access to quality natural environments for more people; and crises to be averted, including of climate and biodiversity. These tasks are huge and require collective will, agreement and investment. The latter are things discovered to be possible this year – does that give cause for hope?

We have built a world that has given us comfort but also looming risks – recognition of this has moved to the centre ground and that is a start.  But how to address this – the task of building better systems that leave no one behind is complex and huge. What are the key issues to be addressed and how – what are the natural capital priorities?

Changing course

The pandemic changed the world, not only in relation to health systems but also in terms of the trajectory of the economy. There are other forces which had begun to reshape and influence, and which are continuing. Financial markets and big corporations have begun to actively and publicly include climate change and sustainability in their planning and day-to-day business in a new way. This is seen as a consequence of consumer pressure and recognition that the bottom line business risks from a disrupted world are close enough to make taking action a business necessity – in parts relieving and very worrying indeed. Disparity of opportunity across different social groups and different generations is being articulated and expressed in new ways that compel an answer. In the UK the recent decision to include air pollution as a cause of the 2013 death of nine-year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah brings a human tragedy to the centre of giving legal weight to the attribution of harm from environmental mismanagement. In all these circumstances brave argument of rights has accompanied presentation of sound accumulated scientific evidence.

Re-imagining the next decade

Creating understandable targets for improved conditions is vital and the renewed enthusiasm for a carbon target of net zero is a beacon of hope – but it is vital that we reach net zero with net benefits, and not with accumulated collateral damage that could be avoided with good use of knowledge. It is crucial to remember that a carbon-lowering switch to diesel cars drove significant deterioration of air quality. We simply cannot afford to make similar mistakes on the current and future path to zero.

Science has been showing for a long time now that there are myriad problems of biodiversity decline, increasing hazards, climate disruption, ecosystem instability – it is a sad fact that the policy cycle to respond to these warnings of danger is extremely long. The knowledge that the research community has continued to accumulate over that time needs to be at the ready to be deployed in the right way to shape and respond to the new legal, social and business opportunities that are opening, and so having good networked dialogue across research, policy, business and societal groups has never been more crucial.

In 2019 we brought together three experts to discuss how natural capital approaches could contribute to building benefit and I am fascinated to hear what their views are now in the light of turbulent times – have they changed at all? Listen again to the NCI panel discussion in January 2021, for which we invited the same speakers to discuss new priorities for coping with economic and societal change.