To stay within the ecological carrying capacity of our planet, we need to fundamentally transform the economy. We must look beyond technological solutions to find truly regenerative ways of living which restore rather than further deplete natural capital. Such a nature-based economy hinges on social innovations and new economic thinking, including degrowth and care economy.
The need for a sustainable transformation of the economy is widely acknowledged. A green economy will have zero net greenhouse gas emissions and remain within the environmental boundaries of the planet. To achieve this, the focus today is mostly on technological innovations such as renewable energies, increased efficiencies, and recycling. Although a hopefully rapid upscaling of technological solutions will help tackle the climate crisis in the short term, technologies alone will not halt the overconsumption of natural resources. We must also fundamentally transform our relations with nature. Regenerative practices and ecological competence must become the norm across economic sectors so that all forms of production and consumption can help restore natural capital.
This calls for the adoption of nature-based solutions (NBS) by households, companies and governments: carbon storage in forests and soils, green cities, and an agroecological circular economy that builds on natural processes, from production down to the recycling of food and other goods such as building materials and clothes. A nature-based economy requires new economic incentives, worldviews and competencies in society.
Fixing harmful incentives
Governments massively support an unecological economy through subsidies. The need to abolish or reform harmful subsidies has been recognised – albeit without much progress (e.g. CBD’s Aichi Target 3). The International Monetary Fund estimated that fossil fuels were globally subsidised with around US$5.9 trillion in 2020. In Switzerland, biodiversity-harming subsidies amount to at least CHF40 billion per year. Such subsidies generate path dependencies and lock-in situations. For instance, decade-long subsidies to intensive agriculture, with its dependence on the agrochemical industry and the use of heavy machinery, have led to strong interest groups and also time delays until amortisation of infrastructure is reached. Equally, the health benefits of nature are difficult to promote within the current health system which prioritises high-tech treatment over prevention and public health. In contrast, unecological practices are almost never penalised, and nature-friendly activities almost never supported. To achieve legally binding nature conservation goals, current conservation-related government spending needs to be multiplied, both globally and in European countries.
Education and public awareness
The basic precondition for a nature-based economy is people with sound ecological knowledge who experience nature in all its diversity on a daily basis. To achieve this, education in ecology and outdoors teaching must be scaled-up, starting with primary school and culminating in professional training and further education. A window of opportunity is the growing interest in green cities, which can trigger a co-dependent change in social attitudes and legal regulations. City dwellers want more nature in their neighbourhoods, while urban planners recognise that cities must become greener to foster climate change adaptation, health, and quality of life. This in turn might allow the passing of new planning and building legislation such as compulsory greening of roofs and façades. Model examples of green neighbourhoods and pioneers of ecological innovations can change public perception of what is desirable and feasible.
Re-directing research and innovation
A societal transformation towards sustainability relies on social and ecological innovations. Ecological innovations must be promoted alongside technology through the funding of research and development (R&D) and via social learning. The innovation in question might involve the rediscovery of local techniques and traditional knowledge, or novel concepts such as artificial food ecosystems which integrate insect farming with aquaculture. A nature-based economy will thus require major changes to the disciplinary structure and technology transfer strategies of universities. Currently, much funding goes into research that is directly or indirectly associated with energy- and material-intensive technologies, with little money remaining for ecology and ecology-based innovation and entrepreneurship.
Social issues are key to an ecological transition
Currently, many nature-based jobs are poorly paid and marginalised (e.g. poorly educated workers without permanent employment in agriculture). It is also true that nature-based work in areas such as forestry, gardening, and agriculture often still builds on outdated gender stereotypes: machines and muscles. Working with and in nature, however, must focus on virtues such as care, patience, and empathy. If done well, a nature-based transition will reduce unfulfilling and unhealthy jobs and inequalities while increasing diversity and inclusion along the way.
New economic paradigms
Nature and the use thereof do not follow the rules of classical economics, i.e. efficiency, standardisation, division of labour, primacy of capital over labour, and growth. Rather, manifold locally rooted business models are needed which are resilient, internalise social and ecological side-effects, and are characterized by multifunctionality instead of optimised monofunctionality. The carrying capacity of ecosystems sets limits to growth. Thus, a move towards a nature-based economy hinges on a shift in economic paradigms towards a circular economy of natural materials, qualitative instead of quantitative growth, degrowth, strengthening of local economies, better recognition of the value of informal and unpaid work, a care economy, and tools such as a universal basic income.
 Xu, H., Cao, Y., Yu, D., Cao, M., He, Y., Gill, M., & Pereira, H. M. (2021). Ensuring effective implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity targets. Nature Ecology & Evolution 5(4): 411-418. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-020-01375-y