Most people recognize that the natural world is essential to our physical health and mental wellbeing. But it’s one thing to understand that dependence intuitively, and another to actually witness the overwhelming influence of nature over our lives on a global scale.
The importance of “natural capital”—resources such as healthy soil, clean water, and resilient ecosystems—is literally mapped out in a study published on Thursday in Science. A team led by Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, unveiled an interactive global map that demonstrates nature’s effects on crop pollination, water quality, and coastal hazard risks.
"Thanks to rapid recent technological improvements, we're now able to map these local contributions from nature in a detailed, accessible way at a global scale," said Chaplin-Kramer in a statement. "By applying this new technology, we are able to clearly see where people are receiving benefits from nature around the world. We also see where people are most likely to lose vital benefits as ecosystems degrade."
The map is based on data from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a United Nations committee tasked with tracking nature’s contributions to people around the world. Each model is a combination of data on the natural capital requirements of local communities, as well as the capacity for particular regions to sustain those resources, both today and over the coming decades.
The maps show nature’s contributions in shades of green and human needs in shades of pink. Regions that are extremely pink are the ones with the most troubling “benefit gaps,” meaning that human needs outweigh the natural environment’s ability to provide them.
The projections of the world in 2050 are shaded from yellow to red based on expected changes to crop pollination, water quality, and coastal hazards under various scenarios.
These models are especially dire—some five billion people are at risk of exposure to crop shortages, unsafe water pollution, and coastal hazards by 2050, according to the paper. The populations most vulnerable to food and water shortages are centered in developing nations in Africa and South Asia.
Meanwhile, some 500 million people in coastal communities around the world, regardless of wealth, could be impacted by coastal hazards as a result of rising sea levels and intensifying storms, which are driven by climate change.
On the project website, you can explore the future projections through the lens of various scenarios, such as a “Sustainability” option that presumes humans are able to effectively prioritize environmental preservation and address wealth inequities before 2050. The “Fossil Fueled Development” scenario displays a future in which humanity does not curb fossil fuel consumption, while the “Regional Rivalry” model identifies areas prone to “resurgent nationalism,” exacerbated by resource scarcity, according to the project website.
While the new online tool is certainly ominous, Chaplin-Kramer and her colleagues developed it as a means to thwart the more devastating projections, and outline where investments in natural capital would make the greatest impacts.
“There are a growing number of opportunities around the world for science to inform such investments, at local to national scales,” the team concluded in the study. “Ultimately, revealing nature’s contributions to people, in diverse and accessible terms, is an essential step to averting the worst scenarios and transforming to a world in which both people and nature thrive.”