Rewilding initiatives have been making headlines around the globe, but what does this holistic approach to conservation involve, and what impact is it really having on the world as we know it? We explore what rewilding means for communities, the planet, and the businesses adapting to a new environmental approach.
What is rewilding?
The fundamental principle underpinning rewilding initiatives is that nature knows best. By reinstating natural biodiversity through the reintroduction of plant and animal life, rewilding seeks to return environments to their natural state and involves little human intervention once the reintroduction process is complete.
Not-for-profit organization Rewilding Europe defines rewilding as “a progressive approach to conservation” involving “letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes”. In a nutshell, rewilding is about giving nature a helping hand, then stepping back and allowing it to heal itself through self-sustaining ecosystems.
Why is rewilding necessary?
It’s no secret that humans have had a huge impact on the planet. Over the last 50 years alone, as much as two-thirds of the world’s wildlife has been lost. The WWF’s Living Planet Report states that 5000,000 plant and animal species and 500,000 insect species are currently at risk of being lost. Around 40% of all plant species are facing extinction; scientists say that we are losing plant species faster than they can identify, name and study them, which means we could be missing out on new medicines, crops, and even energy sources.
According to NASA, earth’s surface temperature has risen by 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. This rise has been driven primarily by increasing carbon dioxide emissions and other human activities, with most of the warming occurring in the last 40 years. 2016 and 2020 are tied for the dubious accolade of the warmest years ever recorded.
The extreme weather events, wildfires, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, warming oceans and ocean acidification caused by global warming are bad news for humans, plants, and animals alike. Rewilding helps to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, where restored ecosystems absorb carbon from the atmosphere and release it as oxygen. Scientists recently found that restoring 15% of Brazil’s ecosystems could sequester one third of all CO2 emissions released since the Industrial Revolution, which goes to show that a little rewilding can go a very long way indeed. The UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration states that restoring biodiversity and ecosystems can “provide the best defense against climate change”.
Why businesses need to take note
For businesses of all shapes and sizes, there may soon be an imperative to not only minimize their environmental impact, but to do it now. May 2021 saw what the oil industry are calling ‘Black Wednesday’: during this 24 hour period, there was a landmark ruling against Royal Dutch Shell to cut its emissions by 45% within the next 10 years by a court in The Hague, and shareholder rebellions at both Chevron and ExxonMobil, the latter of which also had a boardroom reshuffle imposed by investors. Days after the ruling, credit ratings agency Moody’s said that the credit risk of major oil producers has now increased.
This ‘day of reckoning’ for the oil industry is no doubt a sign of things to come, with society no longer tolerating vague, distant, or minimal sustainability plans and instead demanding immediate action. The ruling also provides a basis for further court action against the worst polluting companies. The financial and legal consequences for any business choosing to ignore this turning tide could be dire. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 lists environmental risks in the top three ‘clear and present short-term (0-2 years) dangers’ for businesses. Four of the top seven ‘risks’ are environmental
Rewilding in action
While many CFOs may be reluctant to imagine a world in which their business’ activities cost more than they return, green initiatives such as rewilding can present sustainable business opportunities.
One of the most famous rewilding success stories can be found in the USA’s Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s wolf population was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, which meant their prey was free to multiply exponentially.
Eventually, the elk population grew so large that Yellowstone’s land became overgrazed, and trees and grasslands were destroyed. In turn, this left native birds nowhere to nest, and beavers could no longer build dams. Riverbanks then started to erode and water temperatures rose due to lack of trees to shade them, leaving fish populations vulnerable. In short, the Park’s ecosystem began to collapse after the loss of only a single species.
Now, 26 years later, Yellowstone is one of the foremost examples of successful rewilding in action. Wolves were reintroduced in 1996, and since then the park has been transformed back to a thriving ecosystem, complete with predators, elk, birds, fish, and trees all living in harmony – just like nature intended.
The Yellowstone wolf restoration program cost roughly $30 million, while wolf ecotourism brings in $35 million every year – a return even the most cautious entrepreneur would be happy to see. The Park is now globally recognized as the best place to observe wolves and has generated an economic boom in surrounding communities.
Rewilding critics & supporters
Celebrities, politicians, CEOs, and other notable figures have all lent their voices in support of rewilding initiatives. Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, announced funding of $43 million for rewilding in the Galapagos Islands.
From big cat reintroduction in India to Tasmanian devils being born in the wild in Australia for the first time in 3,000 years and even bears returning to Italian mountain ranges, it seems that global consensus is firmly in favor of rewilding. But is this the whole story?
A criticism often levelled at rewilding is that it excludes people; by returning landscapes to pre-human conditions, some worry that local communities could be disempowered. Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Rewilding Britain, argues that it is possible for people and ecosystems to coexist, saying that the point of rewilding is “not to take people out of the landscape and forbid them from touching or entering it. There’s a spectrum of restoring those natural processes and we see some forms of landscapes that are productive as part of that.”
Farmers and agricultural businesses are frequent dissenters when it comes to the rewilding cause. The National Farmers Union (NFU), a group that represent farmers all over the UK, stresses that a balance between agricultural land use and restoring landscapes must be found.
“Rewilding large parts of agricultural land would mean having to bring in and eat more food from other countries that may not have been produced in a climate-friendly way, which would actually make the global climate change situation worse. Food production and carbon capture are both very important and we need to be able to do both together.”Stuart Roberts, Deputy President of the NFU
There is also the argument that rewilding is an inherent contradiction; man-made environments are not natural, even ones created with the best intentions. Abandoning human control over an artificial ecosystem can have disastrous consequences, as the Dutch Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve found out: the project’s failure to reintroduce natural predators meant that herbivores overpopulated, overgrazed, and eventually local residents began feeding the starving animals. The subsequent report into the project’s failure concluded that the reserve is a human creation, and its problems should be solved by humans
The business of rewilding
With strong arguments on either side of the rewilding debate, can a compromise be found? Could economic growth even be decoupled from emissions for good? Some entrepreneurs believe so. Return To Nature is a startup which uses “nature to support the mental wellbeing when dealing with mortality and grief”. They offer rewilding burials that are “the most sustainable end-of-life arrangement for our planet”.
An entire business model has sprung up around rewilding as a way of offsetting emissions: often coming in the form of planting trees, ‘carbon credits’ can be purchased by businesses to compensate for their carbon emissions. However, according to the World Economic Forum, until now there has been no standardized way to trade carbon credits or verify the compensating activity behind them. This has resulted in what the Financial Times declared “the greatest mis-selling scandal” in modern times, where some companies and countries have increased emissions to then be financially rewarded for cutting them.
Indirect economic benefits may eventually be the greatest boon of the rewilding initiatives around the world. For health and wellbeing, for example, a Swedish study has shown that hospital patients have better recovery rates when their bed faces a window with a visible tree compared to those who do not. Japanese doctors even prescribe ‘forest bathing’ to patients, with benefits including “significantly reduced pulse rate and significantly increased score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion”. With global healthcare systems under increasing pressure from aging populations and a pandemic, it’s clear that both businesses and communities stand to gain from rewilding initiatives.
While agreement on the benefits and drawbacks of rewilding may never be reached, it’s clear that more must be done to mitigate the environmental damage being done to our planet by humans, and that businesses who ignore this threat could be doomed to both financial and legal woes, as well as pushback from the communities they serve. By acknowledging that we are only one of millions of species sharing the earth and working together to manage the harm we cause, we still stand a chance of reclaiming our planet before it’s too late.
Executive VP Sustainable Development & CEO LittleBIG Connection
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