The more we exhaust nature, the more we are tempted by virtual worlds. On World Biodiversity Day, we imagine how time and money spent on the creation of the much-hyped metaverse – persistent virtual worlds that combine aspects of the digital and physical worlds – could be used to build the ‘natureverse’, a perfect mirroring of the physical world (nature) by persistent digital worlds (financial markets). In this imaginary natureverse, financial markets fuel a nature-inclusive economy with no unpriced externalities, unlocking trillion-dollar opportunities and immense social benefits. Here is how to make it happen. Live in the future!
Virtual realities are gaining share against natural ones
The more nature retreats, the more we become accustomed to this, and our expectations of a wild environment diminish. This condition, the shifting baseline syndrome,1 means that what we call pristine nature today would be deemed by our ancestors as terribly degraded, and what we consider degraded might well be seen as the norm by our children. It is a dangerous condition: as our expectations erode to match the limitations of the present, we are blinded to the plight of nature and therefore are not equipped to address environmental issues.
There is another shifting baseline syndrome affecting us: the more time we spend online, the more this becomes the norm.
Could it be that as we are exhausting nature, we are being pushed into virtual realities, or even ‘desire’ these seemingly more exciting and pristine worlds?
Mindful that correlation is not causation, this is what the figure below seems to highlight: as global biodiversity intactness (i.e., the estimated percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance globally, despite human impacts)2 declines, the number of hours the world population spends online rises.3
Figure 1: Global biodiversity intactness (estimated percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance) vs daily time spent online globally
Many parents would probably agree with the above: in the UK, one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries4 (as measured by its biodiversity intactness), three-quarters of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates,5 and less than one in 10 children regularly plays in wild spaces, compared to half of children a generation ago.6 The average American child spends about 4 to 7 minutes a day playing outside and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen,7 and 64% of them spend over 6 hours a week playing a single online game, Fortnite.8
It is in this context that tech giants are inciting us to dedicate even further time, attention and money to the ‘metaverse’, a universe of persistent virtual worlds that combine aspects of the digital and physical worlds (for instance, Fortnite can be considered to be a metaverse, or part of the metaverse).
The metaverse vs the natureverse
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse doesn’t refer to any one particular type of technology but is, rather, a broader shift in how we interact with technology, with the aim being a seamless convergence of our physical and digital lives, creating a unified, virtual community where we can work, play, relax, transact and socialise (JPMorgan definition).9 This can include virtual and augmented realities (i.e. that contain aspects from digital and physical worlds).
Many companies participating in the metaverse envision a new digital economy with a focus on blockchains and the use of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens – unique cryptographic tokens that cannot be replicated). This allows users to create, buy and sell goods within the metaverse. These new economies and current hype for the metaverse have led some of the world’s largest companies to expand into the metaverse.
- Coca-Cola’s Zero Sugar Byte was introduced as a “flavour born in the metaverse”
- The fast-food retailer Chipotles offers free (virtual) food for consumers visiting their metaverse shops.
- The parent companies of Fortnite and Lego announced last month they would both invest USD1 billion to build a ‘child-friendly metaverse’.12
Whilst many might believe the metaverse to be a single unified place, this is not the case yet due to the raw computing power that is needed for such a concept.
There is another universe that needs more attention
However ‘cool’ the metaverse might sound to some, it does little to solve the greatest crisis of our existence: the collapse of natural capital (including climate).
Planet Tracker argues that a world in which financial markets are in symbiosis with nature is possible. We call this the ‘natureverse’. In the natureverse, financial markets and the economy they fuel are perfectly aligned with natural constraints, and nature-based solutions and ecosystem services are fully valued and integrated into economic and financial decisions. In short, the natureverse is a nature-inclusive economy with no unpriced externalities.
Just as the metaverse’s persistent virtual realities combine aspects of the physical and digital worlds, the natureverse is the symbiotic combination of persistent digital worlds (financial markets) and our physical world (nature).
Figure 2: What is cooler? Marc Zuckerberg’s meta avatar vs the endangered Kea, the only Alpine parrot in the world. Picture credits: Meta (left), Unsplash / Karl Anderson (right)
Just like the metaverse, the natureverse is to a large extent an imaginary world for now. Below, we explore the similarities and differences between the metaverse and the natureverse, before explaining why the latter is urgently needed, financially attractive and hugely beneficial to our society.
Some of the key companies currently building/operating the metaverse include Alphabet (Google), Roblox, Snap, Microsoft, Adobe, Meta (Facebook), Nvidia, as well as many other tech start-ups. In the future, JPMorgan expects companies from every sector to start to expand into the metaverse.13
Similarly, every nature-related company, in particular those with a high impact and/or dependency on nature such as food companies could be part of the natureverse. So, of course, would the institutions that are financially exposed to them and the providers of technology and data necessary to create the natureverse.
Key barriers to development
It will take time before the metaverse becomes mainstream – 15 years, according to a survey of British consumers.14 For this to materialise, development costs will be steep, since the cost of producing virtual worlds is extremely high. For instance, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator generated environments from real world scans, but recreating these worlds from scratch would cost billions.15 Yet Gartner estimates that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour daily in the metaverse.16
The natureverse is probably even further away from being a reality than the metaverse, even though much of the technology to design it (e.g. spatial finance, satellite-based monitoring, etc.) already exists.
For the natureverse to materialise, financial assets and natural assets need to be linked, through a combination of data and spatial finance. Yet data is a key element that is often quoted as preventing financial markets, and the economy they fuel to be aligned with a nature-inclusive economy with no unpriced externalities.
We need to talk about biodiversity data
We disagree with the oft-mentioned complaint that there is not enough biodiversity data. There are already plenty of useful indicators and metrics at the local or country level, and some of them, such as UNEP-WCMC’s ENCORE17, IUCN’s STAR,18 or Iceberg Data Lab’s CBF,19 can also be used at a company level.
It is true however that biodiversity data can be fragmented, and company-specific data can sometimes be difficult to find or derive from other data, as opposed to being neatly available on a Bloomberg terminal. The solution? Look harder to find them or get someone to do this for you.
Figure 3: Biodiversity data is just like wildlife: it’s out there, you just need to look carefully.
Efforts should focus on reducing this fragmentation, whilst avoiding only retaining oversimplified metrics that do not match local realities.
But isn’t this also the case for the real data that currently moves financial markets? Whilst there is homogeneity in the type of data published by companies, the drivers of these datapoints (which, we argue, are more important than headline metrics) are also fragmented and often company-specific – or sector-specific at the very least. For instance, while Netflix, Heineken and countless other companies publish some form of volume growth data, the types and units of this data vary enormously (number of users, number of hectolitres of beer, etc.), and no one ever asked for one common metric for all companies. So why should it be different for nature impacts and dependencies?
Still, aggregating some of the already existing data is needed. That is why, for instance, Planet Tracker is building an ocean database that will include for each company key environmental indicators from a multitude of public sources to allow for a comprehensive analysis of the environmental/financial nexus of ocean-dependent companies. Similar projects are planned for land-use, petrochemicals/plastics and the textile sectors.
A key limitation around biodiversity data is that it is often not company-specific. For the natureverse to materialise, companies need to entirely, accurately and consistently disclose their impact and dependency on nature, thus creating the company data financial markets need to ensure economies are aligned with nature’s constraints.
Ultimately, only legislation, enforced and consistent across jurisdictions, will ensure that this is the case. From the company’s perspective, this is not a very tempting proposition. Yet rather than seeing disclosure as an increased cost, we argue that a change in mindset is needed: there are financial benefits linked to greater nature disclosure (e.g. better brand image or higher enterprise value). One could also envisage a world where some of the data voluntarily disclosed by companies (above and beyond legal requirements) could be monetised – just like personal data are monetised already.
Business models: NBS instead of NFT
In the burgeoning metaverse, three types of business models are emerging:
- Advertising: directly on the platform, it gives developers a percentage of the generated profits.
- NFTs: the most successful are unique and interactive collectibles, e.g. CryptoPuppies.20
- Digital real estate: selling virtual real estate or other virtual spaces inside the metaverse. There are over 250,000 parcels of land currently for sale in the metaverse21 (vs. 800,000 properties in the UK in the real world, just on Rightmove22)
In biodiversity finance, which one day might be called the ancestor of the natureverse, the answer to the metaverse’s NFTs are NBS (nature-based solutions, i.e. a category of assets in which businesses, governments and citizens can invest in order to work with nature instead of seeing it as a barrier to economic development and progress23).
Their monetising contributes to bringing us closer to the natureverse. Monetising NBS can be via nature-related financing instruments, such as deforestation-linked bonds, or blue recovery bonds, or via offsets. Simpler, more established instruments, such as commodity prices or insurance premia and catastrophe bonds (that price in nature’s vagaries) already contribute to ‘price in nature’, but not the impacts companies have on it. For the natureverse to materialise, this is needed. So is a recalibration of domestic budgets and tax policies, a transition towards sustainable supply chains, and a greater use of natural infrastructure (e.g. wetlands, mangroves, green roofs, etc.). In brief, there is a lot to do – but it is worth it.
Trillion dollar opportunities
There is huge potential for growth in the metaverse, estimated to be a one trillion dollar revenue opportunity. Whilst defining the total revenue opportunity24 in the natureverse is challenging, the total value of ecosystem services (which would be priced in and integrated into financial markets in the natureverse) is two orders of magnitude higher than the metaverse’s revenue opportunity.25
This ensures that the revenue opportunity for the natureverse is expressed in trillion dollars, rather than billions.
The elephants in the natureverse room: growth and ‘free’ services
Revenue-based valuation multiples in the metaverse are likely to be higher than those in the natureverse, as the market would likely price in faster growth and monetisation in the former. This is normal given the ways markets currently link growth and valuation. However, in a world where economies are aligned with nature’s constraints and with no unpriced externalities, growth in physical assets cannot be the key driver of valuations, for it is limited (growth in services, digital and virtual assets would not be though).
For the natureverse to emerge, full integration of nature in financial markets will inevitably involve pricing in the ecosystem services our societies and economies rely on. What now appears nowhere in financial statements (e.g. the ‘free’ pollination service that insects provide a food company with) will have a hard dollar cost for companies. Ceteris paribus, this will lead to a downgrade of present and future corporate profits and therefore valuations, unless the ways they are computed change – this could be a task for the ISSB or the TNFD. Is this too great a price to pay for the vastly greater social utility of the natureverse compared to the metaverse?
Social benefits and financial opportunities
Affordability of experiences (the possibility of giving everyone access to luxuries that otherwise may not be available), connectivity, and innovation (especially in terms of communication) are the key social benefits of the metaverse. They are important, but nowhere near those that nature provides us with.
An alignment of financial markets and economies with nature is a better alternative than the eventual enormous shocks that biodiversity collapse would inevitably trigger.
Because of this, the natureverse should perhaps be valued using an opportunity cost method, rather than typical valuation metrics. The global economy could lose as much as USD 2.7 trillion a year by 2030 if countries continue to destroy biodiversity, according to the World Bank. Another estimate from the Boston Consulting Group put the cost at USD 5 trillion today, rather than in 2030.27
In contrast, the upper range of the annual amount of funding that is required to reverse the global decline in biodiversity is just under a trillion dollars,28 i.e. comparatively small – it’s significantly less than the amount countries spend on environmentally harmful subsidies every year – which is more than USD 200 per capita.29
So, what is needed to ensure that the world changes its trajectory?
Could a metaverse actually help?
Ironically, perhaps a metaverse could help overcome some of the psychological barriers that prevent change. A digital twin of the existing natural world, which would record all changes it undergoes, would allow everyone to compare this digital twin – the virtual copy of our planet’s natural landscapes – with the real world. All differences and the reasons for these differences could be monitored. This would allow everyone to see how the world would look like without the negative impacts that companies and government’s decisions have on nature.
As a constant reminder of how things were and could be, it would also save us from shifting baseline syndrome. And the very fact that it is virtual would remind us that, whilst there could be a planet 2.0, there is no Planet B.
3 Computations based on https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2022-global-overview-report
29 Planet Tracker computations based on https://www.businessfornature.org/news/subsidy-reform