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UK economy risks collapse without urgent investment in nature

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The Green Finance Institute estimates that the UK is facing a finance gap of up to £97 billion to meet the UK’s nature-related targets by 2032.

Without investment in climate mitigation, biodiversity restoration, flood prevention and other nature-related outcomes as outlined in public policy like the 25 Year Environment Plan, both our natural environment and economy are at risk of collapse.

Highlighting the urgent need for investment in nature, in the week that climate action group One Home reported that £600 million worth of homes are at risk of falling into the sea, Jeremy Leggett called on the UK’s financial sector to “step up or get washed away”.

Leggett, a former Chief Scientific Advisor to Greenpeace and founder of Solarcentury, one of the world’s most respected solar energy companies, is an experienced entrepreneur, who backed solar technology long before the government and financial institutions. Decades later, having proved his point with solar providing the cheapest energy available, he is now urging the financial sector to wake up to the facts and invest in the protection of nature.

“By continuing to invest in fossil fuels and related industries which destroy nature, institutional investors and many large funds are financing their own demise. There will be no business in a broken world. If big business does not invest in biodiversity and natural capital now, there will be no business”, warns Leggett.

He continued: “While the recent donation from Aviva of £38 million to the Wildlife Trust is a welcome development, donations are not a sustainable model for financing nature recover. Highlands Rewilding, and related projects, offer a new model for investment in nature-based solutions, with multiple revenue streams providing an economic and ecological return on investment.”

Having grown Solarcentury from a small South-London roofing company to a major international business deploying gigawatts of solar PV around the world, Leggett sold Solarcentury to Statkraft, which is owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade. But, rather than retire, Leggett invested his share of the proceeds – and raised more than £7 million – to start Highlands Rewilding, which currently owns two estates in Scotland.

“What we are doing here is opening up a pathway for businesses to finance nature recovery,” explains Leggett. “Humanity is at a tipping point which can go either way. Either we invest in the restoration of the natural environment, or we risk the complete collapse of civilization as we know it – including the economy.”

For the last few months Highlands Rewilding has been running a crowdfunding campaign, which has exceeded its initial target and raised over £700,000 from more than 400 individuals.

“Hundreds of citizens are helping to finance the vital nature recovery we so desperately need. But so far it is almost exclusively individuals who have stepped up to invest”, says Leggett. “Government announcements, like the UK’s Ambitious roadmap for a cleaner, greener country, have pledged public money but the effort to halt biodiversity loss will need the backing of major investment funds, who are still sitting on the fence. The evidence is clear; Nature needs our help. But the major financial institutions are ignoring the warnings – and the opportunities.

“We saw it happen with renewables. Major finance was too slow to see the scale of the opportunity and too slow to come on board. Thankfully that situation changed but it took too long and we are living with the consequences. The situation is now even more urgent. Big business needs to back natural capital or the erosion of the economy will follow the same fate as the Norfolk coastline.”

Leggett is not alone in his assertions. Andy Howard, Global Head of Sustainable Investment points out that over half of global GDP, $44 trillion, is dependent on nature and its services, commenting: “The reality is stark: nature risk is fast becoming an integral factor to investment risk and returns”.

Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair of the government’s own Office for Environmental Protection commented that wildlife in particular was suffering “eye-watering” declines. “Species decline stands out – the rate of decline is inexorable,” she said. “This needs a lot of intervention, that is absolutely required.”

With the Treasury already stretched to its limits and further tax rises not compatible with the cost-of-living crisis it seems hard to imagine the government will be able to address the urgent funding gap at the required speed, or scale, to halt and reverse species decline. The only hope therefore is private sector finance and commercial capital.

In Scotland, Highlands Rewilding is performing a litmus test, entering the final quarter of its race to raise the required funds to scale nature recovery in Scotland. Their investment round is one of the first efforts after COP 15’s landmark biodiversity agreement, to break through the barrier of institutional finance.

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