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An Eco-wakening: Measuring global awareness, engagement and action for nature

The natural world is under threat. In the Amazon, more than 150 acres of rainforest are lost every minute of every day. Wildlife population sizes have seen an alarming average drop of 68% since 1970. And this isn't just about the natural world - it's about our world as well. We depend on nature for our own survival, livelihoods, happiness, and as seen with COVID-19, our health - the destruction of nature only increases the chances of future pandemics emerging. Our broken relationship with nature is putting the future of people and planet at risk.

Humanity may be responsible for the destruction of our planet - but humanity is also waking up...and stepping up. 

Findings from a new eye-opening report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) commissioned by WWF, spanning 54 countries that hold 80% of the world's population, reveal that we're entering a new era of change - perhaps the most important era for the future of humanity and our planet.

1. MORE PEOPLE ARE GIVING NATURE A VOICE, ONE POST AT A TIME. On Twitter alone, the number of posts related to nature loss and biodiversity has increased by 65% since 2016.

2. MORE PEOPLE ARE AWARE OF THE ISSUES - AND WANT TO BE INFORMED. The popularity of Google searches for terms related to biodiversity and nature loss, relative to all searches, have grown by 16% globally since 2016.

3. MORE PEOPLE THAN EVER ARE IN SEARCH OF A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. The popularity of Google searches relating to sustainable goods has increased by 71% globally since 2016.

 

CONSUMERS ARE NOT AFRAID TO TAKE A STAND
In a 2019 online survey, 50% of respondents worldwide said they switched products or services because a company violated their values. The number one reason cited for the switch was to support products or services that ‘protect the environment.’

...AND BUSINESSES ARE LISTENING

  • In the food, cosmetic and natural pharmaceutical industries globally, the number of companies committed to sourcing practices that protect biodiversity increased by 45% from 2016 to 2020.
  • In the fashion industry,  60% of brands in North America and Europe say that ‘implementing sustainability measures’ was one of their top priorities in 2020. 
  • Last year, 540 of the world’s biggest corporations - including Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Unilever, and Citigroup - signed up to a Business for Nature statement calling on governments worldwide to do more to reverse nature loss.

MILLIONS ARE DEMANDING URGENT CHANGE
Since 2016, over 159 million signatures for biodiversity-related campaigns have been collected. The most number of signatures for biodiversity and nature campaigns came from Brazil, with 23 million signatures - or 15% of global signatures.

...AND THEIR VOICES ARE BEING HEARD
In June 2020, seven major European funds threatened to withdraw their 2 trillion US dollars-worth of investments from Brazil unless key decision makers in the country did something to stop the surging destruction of the Amazon rainforest 

Last September, political leaders representing 84 countries participating in the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity - including Dr. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany - committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030.

As of 2019, legislations restricting single-use plastic items have been passed in 127 countries, following sustained global protest about the environmental harm that was being caused.

Quick overview :

The findings are based on an extensive literature review, insights from an expert panel and a modelling exercise conducted by The EIU between May and December 2020.

  • It shows that hundreds of millions of people all over the world are concerned, and that this number is growing.
  • The most dramatic growth in engagement and awareness has occurred in Asia, most notably India (190%), Pakistan (88%) and Indonesia (53%).
  • People all over the world care about nature, and that trend is growing—especially in emerging markets.
  • This shift in public sentiment reflects a hard reality, as people in emerging markets are most likely to experience the devastating impact of the loss of nature.
  • The number of nature-loss conversations has grown, as seen in the 65% increase in Twitter mentions since 2016.
  • Nature-loss and biodiversity issues are gaining more traction online than ever before, with the number of Twitter mentions increasing most in emerging markets.
  • Major influencers around the world—including political figures, celebrities and religious leaders—are using their platforms to amplify nature issues, with messages reaching a combined audience of almost 1bn people worldwide.
  • Consumers are changing their behaviour, with searches for sustainable goods increasing globally by 71% since 2016.
  • Corporations are responding, particularly in the cosmetics, pharmaceutical, fashion and food sectors.
  • Public demand for action is rapidly growing through protests, petitions and campaign donations.
  • Between 2016 and 2018, global news media coverage of nature-based protests grew by a steady 7%.
  • Between 2018 and 2019, however, coverage jumped by a whopping 103%, driven by protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion.
  • The call for bold, decisive action by governments and businesses on behalf of the planet and future generations is getting louder and louder.

Nature is disappearing. Since 1970, mammal, bird, fish, amphibian and reptile populations have seen an alarming decrease in size of 68% on average

  • Biodiversity underpins global food security and nutrition.
  • Millions of species help nurture the healthy soils that are essential to grow the fruits, vegetables and animal products that provide a balanced diet to a world population of over 7.6bn people.
  • Declining biodiversity threatens our food systems.
  • Biodiversity helps fight disease.
  • Plants have been an essential part of medicine for tens of thousands of years, and biodiversity continues to support the research and development of new drugs.
  • Around 25% of the drugs made by modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest plants.8
  • Estimates suggest we would require 1.6 Earths to maintain the world’s current living standards

Social media, news and Google trends analysis: The research framework includes more traditional indicators (e.g. opinion surveys) but the majority of the findings discussed in this report are based on new analysis of social media engagement, news media coverage and Google search data.

  • People are using social media to raise awareness and organise on behalf of nature
  • On Twitter, the volume of posts related to biodiversity and nature loss has increased by 65% since 2016.
  • This trend is strongest in Latin America, where the number of messages related to nature and biodiversity soared by 136% between 2016 and 2019.2

The top 20 key influencers include the Pope, Hillary Clinton, film star Leonardo di Caprio, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and organisations such as the BBC and the New York Times.

  • Combined, these accounts have a global audience of almost 1bn people worldwide.
  • Twitter also released an official report in 2020 revealing that conversations about sustainability, “clean” corporations and natural products—those that are environmentally friendly and health-enhancing—are among the fastest-growing topics on the platform.
  • Improving digital infrastructure creates new opportunities to raise awareness and facilitate action for nature
  • As of January 2021, 60% of the global population—4.66bn people—were internet users.
  • Rapidly expanding access to the internet enables millions of additional people to participate in digital activism on behalf of nature, particularly in parts of the world that are most affected by its loss.
  • Since 2016, the popularity of Google searches about nature loss and biodiversity has increased by 16% worldwide, driven primarily by growth in Asia.

Does online activism stimulate real-world change, or is it all just hot air? While some critics question the value of digital activism, there is no doubt that technology has already facilitated significant social and political change in some countries.

  • Sales of sustainable consumer products have outperformed their traditional alternatives
  • Harvard Business Review reported in 2019 that 50% of growth in consumer packaged goods came from products that carried an on-pack sustainability claim.
  • In China, 41% of consumers say that they want eco-friendly products, and in India sales of organic products have grown by 13% since 2018.
  • The fashion and textile industry (which makes up between 1% and 1.5% of global GDP) is the second largest polluter in the world, ranking just behind the oil industry.
  • The industry has been pushed to change as a result of consumer demand.
  • Over 50% of C-suite executives surveyed by EIU say that consumers are driving the focus on sustainability in the fashion and textile industry, followed by environmental activists (35%).
  • As a result of this pressure, 65% of the businesses surveyed have committed to sourcing sustainably produced raw materials, and 60% now collect data on supply chain sustainability.
  • Recognising that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce just a single kilo of cotton,70 the use of water and other natural resources in production processes is being addressed.

Recent actions by key decision-makers. For example “Green development” is highlighted as a priority in the draft of China’s modernisation plan for the next 15 years, which was unveiled in March 2021 at the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing. President Xi Jinping and fellow lawmakers from north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region also discussed ecological conservation. Inner Mongolia is seen as China’s “Green Great Wall”, according to Mr Xi, who also discussed desertification control and forest protection with colleagues.

If people care, why is nature still under threat? We know that awareness, engagement and action for nature are greater than ever before. At the same time, the rate of nature loss appears to be continuously accelerating.

  • There seems to be a gap between people’s growing concern about nature loss and the development of ambitious policies that will stop or even reverse it.
  • Why might this be happening, and what can be done to bridge the gap between public opinion and government action?
  • There is an ongoing debate about what could be causing government inaction.
  • Existing laws and regulations, cost implications and a lack of awareness are three possible barriers
  • Overall, respondents believed that roughly 35% of the world’s sea is preserved. In reality, only 7% is protected.
  • It’s a similar story for land. Assumptions about how much is conserved varied by country, ranging from Australia, where people thought 25% of land is protected to India, where people believed it was 45%. The actual figure is just 15%.”National Geographic, Ipsos Survey

Consumer demand has pushed more and more industries to integrate sustainable practices into their goods and services. However, the cost of re-orienting a business model towards sustainability is expensive.

  • For example, organic materials can be more expensive to grow, and implementing new production, distribution or monitoring technologies has significant upfront costs.

While many people are actively campaigning on behalf of nature and public awareness is steadily increasing, more needs to be done to help the general population make the connection between their own existence and the health of the planet.

This year can be a crucial turning point to reverse nature and biodiversity loss. In only a few months time, world leaders are scheduled to attend a key United Nations conference to negotiate a global framework for addressing the nature crisis. The decisions they make during this conference will impact decades to come, in all aspects of government, business, and civil society. 

Read the full report: An Eco-wakening: Measuring global awareness, engagement and action for nature ( 50 pages)  an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report , commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

eco economist