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According to a new study commissioned by the Campaign for Nature charity, increasing protection for and preserving up to at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans would bring economic and non-monetary benefits that outweigh the costs 5-to-1. Currently, only about 15% of the world’s land and 7% of the ocean have some level of protection. Additional protections, with investments up until 2030, are predicted to lead to an average increase of $250 billion in economic output and $350 billion in improved ecosystem services annually when compared to the present day.

Ecosystems around the world are facing total collapse, with a million species threatened with extinction. However, according to the report, an estimated investment of $140 billion per year up to 2030 to place 30% of the earth’s land and sea under protection may help avoid this mass extinction and restore important habitats while also bringing in additional benefits across multiple sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry and the nature conservation sector. The nature conservation sector is reported to be one of the fastest growing sectors and is predicted to grow at 4-6% per year as compared to less than 1% for the agriculture, fisheries and forestry industry. 

The natural environment plays an extremely important role in supporting economic activity, both directly, by providing resources and raw materials required as inputs for production of goods and services, and indirectly, through services that are provided by our ecosystem such as water purification, flood risk management, coastal protection and nutrient cycling. Therefore, it is critical to secure natural resources for economic growth and development, not only for today but for future generations to come. 

Economic growth requires the combination of different types of capital to produce goods and services, including produced capital, human capital, natural capital and social capital. Unlike the others, natural capital, such as water, land, and fossil fuels, has non-renewable and finite elements with thresholds beyond which dramatic changes may occur, which may be irreversible. Therefore, since natural capital plays a substantial role in producing economic growth, it needs to be used sustainably and efficiently to ensure growth in the long run. 

Ecosystem services also play an important role in tackling global warming. While they are a part of the solution to the climate crisis, they are also affected by it. Well-managed ecosystems help societies adapt to climate hazards and changes by providing a range of services, including climate regulation, that reduce vulnerability to climate variations in agriculture and cities at a regional and continental scale, as well as protection of coastal areas and watersheds. However, there will be a gradual negative impact on these services due to the changes in temperature and other threats such as pollution, over-exploitation of resources etc. This means that there would be a need for investment into man-made provision of these services that are already being provided by nature. By preserving ecosystems, this future cost can be avoided. For example, the effects of climate change can be devastating to vulnerable coastal areas and increased sea level would contribute to flooding and coastal erosion. To combat this, coastal protection structures would have to be put in place, the cost of which could come up to £39 billion, depending on the type of structure. These would include costs of design, construction, operation and maintenance, monitoring and replacement.

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Furthermore, the investment into preserving more of nature is much lower in comparison to the economic benefits it would bring and to the financial support that is given to other sectors. According to Enric Sala, co-author of the report, investing in protecting nature would represent only 0.16% of global GDP and would actually be less than one third of the amount the government already spends on subsidising activities that play an active role in destroying nature. In 2015, global fossil fuel subsidies were as high as $4.7 trillion, 6.3% of the global GDP

Preserving nature also benefits mental and physical health. Not only does the natural environment provide capital for production of goods and services, exposure to nature also boosts human mental health and wellbeing. Poor mental health imposes major costs on economies, caused by poorer efficiency and productivity at the workplace. A study estimates that the global economic value of national parks based on the mental health of its visitors, may be up to $6 trillion annually.

Furthermore, protecting nature reduces the risk of new zoonotic disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, which, as predicted by the June 2020 Global Economic Prospects, will cause a 5.2% contraction in the global GDP in 2020. Experts have suggested that the rise of zoonotic diseases can be blamed on high demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices, exploitation of wildlife and the climate crisis, which has changed the way that animals and humans interact with each other. As said by the UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson, pandemics have a devastating effect on human lives and economies and to prevent future outbreaks, we must increase our efforts in protecting the natural environment. 

While there would be a short-term cost of $140 billion annually by 2030, it would avoid depletion of natural resources and ecosystem services, both of which directly and indirectly aid economic growth. Nature preservation and exposure has a positive impact on mental health, which in turn would boost efficiency, as well as physical health, by reducing the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.  

 

Hidden behind its urban facade, Hong Kong is home to numerous nature reserves. In fact, 75% of Hong Kong land is actually rural and nearly pristine- making the stark contrast between skyscrapers and nature even more alluring. Here are 10 nature reserves and natural landmarks in Hong Kong that you need to visit. 

1. Tai Mo Shan Country Park

Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain, has a height of 957 meters and its surrounding country park holds the record for the highest rainfall and coldest temperatures in the region. The country park is also home to the city’s tallest waterfall, at 35 meters in length. 

The park is also home to more than 100 species of birds and butterflies, as well as snakes, like the bamboo snake, which occasionally makes an appearance along the hiking trails. 

2. Kam Shan Country Park

Known as a monkey haven and located in the North of Kowloon, Kam Shan Country Park is the perfect habitat for macaque monkeys, who are notorious for stealing food straight from visitors’ hands. The park includes four reservoirs, all of which were built and completed in the early 1900s- namely, Kowloon Reservoir, Shek Lei Pui Reservoir,  Kowloon Reception Reservoir and  Kowloon Byewash Reservoir. 

The country park also holds historic value. A section of the former British military defence system, Gin Drinker’s Line, intercepts Kam Shan and runs along the mountains of the Kowloon Peninsula, spanning a total length of 18 kilometers. Built in the late 1930s, the defensive line is in fact a series of defence bunkers linked together by paths featuring concrete fortified machine gun posts, trenches and artiliterry batteries.

3. Tai Po Kau Special Area

An ideal area to spot local species of flora and fauna, the less recreational and more preserved forest allows visitors to seek refuge from the dense city. Tai Po Kau Special Area is recognised by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society as one of the best places to observe rare birds and insects.

4. Lion Rock Country Park

Not far from Kam Shan Country Park sits Lion Rock Country Park in the New Territories, spanning an area of 557 hectares and including two famous peaks: Lion Rock and Amah Rock. The hiking trail is challenging and steep, however the views along the way and at the top are worth the exertion. Amah Rock is the first peak and smaller rock formation in comparison to Lion Rock, the second and taller peak.

5. Hong Kong Wetland Park 

Hong Kong Wetland Park is located in the New Territories and has become a hub of conservation, eco-tourism and education due to the efforts taken to protect a variety of species that roam there. Among many of the animals residing in the region is Pui Pui the crocodile, Hong Kong’s lovable reptilian mascot, who attracts many tourists and locals alike.

Also considered a reserve, Hong Kong Wetland Park specialises in ecological monitoring and habitat management, and provides information on different species in order to increase awareness on the importance of biodiversity conservation. 

The stream walk, mangrove boardwalk, the bird hideouts and fish ponds make this wetland park an all-encompassing wildlife conservation site. 

6. Mai Po Nature Reserve 

Managed by WWF Hong Kong since 1983, the 380 hectare nature reserve is home to thousands of migratory waterbirds and a variety of wetland habitats including gei wais, mangroves, intertidal mudflats and reedbeds. 

Because of the biodiversity, the Mai Po Nature Reserve and the surrounding Inner Deep Bay wetlands are examples of the successful conservation efforts in Hong Kong.

7. Kiu Tsui Country Park

Resembling Thailand for its tropical scenery, the Kiu Tsui Country Park in Sai Kung includes beautiful white sandy beaches that resemble those typically seen at holiday destinations. A private ferry service along the Sai Kung promenade transports visitors to Hap Mun Bay or Kiu Tsui, also known as Sharp Island, where a day out in the sun can be enjoyed.

8. East Dam of High Island Reservoir 

One of the most popular sites within the Hong Kong Geopark is High Island in Sai Kung Peninsula, known for its spectacular rock formations which formed around 140 million years ago. 

The High Island Geo Trail tours the region and leads to the shore, where a sea cave lies at the water’s edge. From there, a wooden boardwalk leads to a lookout point that shows visitors the beautiful region devoid of human settlement.

Completed in the 1970s, the East Dam is located on the east side of the Kwun Mun Channel and encompasses a forgotten fishing village that is now submerged.

9. Lantau South Country Park

One of the two country parks on Lantau Island, Lantau South Country Park spans approximately 56 square kilometres and borders with Lantau North Country Park.

Lantau peak, the highest summit on the island in Lantau South Country Park, is known for being the perfect spot to watch the sunrise and sunset, and attracts locals and tourists alike for this very reason. 

The park also includes activities such as camping, fishing, swimming and biking, making it an adventurer’s paradise.

10. Tai Tam Country Park

Tai Tam Country Park is the largest park on Hong Kong Island and comprises one fifth of the Island’s land mass, spanning a total area of 1 315 hectares

The Tai Tam Waterworks Heritage Trail includes 21 historic waterworks, including aqueducts, dams and masonry bridges, of which many have been declared monuments. The trail spans 5 kilometers, is family-friendly and takes approximately two hours to complete. 

In addition to the waterworks trail, the country park includes an array of other hiking trails that vary in difficulty levels. 

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Hong Kong has more to offer than what meets the eye. Known as one of the business epicenters of Asia, and regarded for its tall skyscrapers, Hong Kong also maintains beautiful nature reserves, with mountainous landscapes, beautiful wetlands, country parks, historic sites and more- making the city a diverse concrete jungle. 

The Wildlife Trusts has recently reported that prescribing time in nature for those with mental health issues can make significant improvements to their wellbeing. With an ever-growing population and an increasing disconnection with nature, can immersing ourselves in nature improve not only our mental and social wellbeing, but our inclination towards environmental conservation as well? 

The world is rapidly urbanising- already 55% of the global population lives in urban areas, a number projected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 according to the UN. With that, time spent in nature is often reduced. Research has found that less time spent in nature threatens future conservation efforts – termed the ‘pigeon paradox’. Under the current urbanisation status quo, this means that interactions with urban natures, organisms and ecosystems – pigeons, mice or squirrels, for example- characterise many people’s perception of nature. At the same time, those who are active in conserving the environment most often cite childhood experiences with nature as critical prerequisites for subsequent environmental actions.

The paper bases its ‘paradox’ on the assertion that the future of conservation efforts depends on our current interactions with urban green space, as spending time within nature grows an intrinsic care for it and therefore provides an impetus for its protection. As such, the paper argues for the critical importance of restoring urban ecosystems and promoting urban green spaces for everyone to access: the future of conservation requires it. Bringing the natural world to more of the population in the urban sphere thus has critical importance, both for conservation but also health benefits – particularly as most of us spend 90% of our time indoors.

How does nature affect mental health?

In 2017, The Wildlife Trusts’ report entitled, “The Health and Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts” found that amongst those with reported mental health issues, 69% of those who spent time involved in environmental conservation projects felt an improvement during a six week period. Built on by research with Leeds Beckett University and The Wildlife Trusts, social return on investment (SROI) from promoting Wildlife Trusts’ conservation programmes for health benefits was found to generate a return of £6.88 for every £1 invested. Such a result illustrates the imperative need for investments in green spaces in cities as well as in conservation volunteering schemes. Specifically to the UK, this will reduce the burden on the National Health Service and improve daily wellbeing amongst the population. According to Anne-Marie Bagnall, Professor of Health and Wellbeing Evidence at Leeds Beckett University, “The significant return on investment of conservation activities in nature means that they should be encouraged as part of psychological wellbeing interventions.”

Why Nature is Good for Your Mental Health

So, are such ‘nature prescriptions’ set to take off? Academic literature supporting the link between better health outcomes– lower stress, anxiety levels or heart rate– and more time in nature is growing. Nature prescriptions are being slowly introduced in the US and UK. As one of over 150 programmes in the USA, California’s Stay Healthy in Nature Everyday (SHINE) group, takes groups of patients, doctors, and naturalists to local parks each month for a dose of nature. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland has recently launched its partnership with NHS Shetland for ‘Nature Prescriptions’, while ‘Myplace’ in Lancashire, a specialist in ‘ecotherapy’, has found a 100% increase in wellbeing from its attendees. 

The trend seems to be catching on: doctors elsewhere in the UK have been encouraged to suggest that their patients get outside, supported by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford. The centre’s NHS Forest project aims to increase patients’ use of local parks and woodlands near hospitals and health centres. A study from Scientific Reports finds that only two hours per week is needed to reap nature’s calming benefits. One health trend that is popular mainly in Japan and South Korea is Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Dr Qing Li, a Japanese expert in forest bathing, argues that the traditional Japanese practice- spending intentional time within trees- can promote health, happiness and wellbeing through reducing blood pressure, strengthening cardiovascular systems and boosting creativity. 

The benefits of being in nature
The RSPB’s Nature Prescription Leaflet (Source: RSPB Scotland). 

Nature’s benefits are endless: As artist Andy Goldsworthy says, “We ARE nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” 

More time in nature can improve not only our intrinsic care for it, but also our own health and wellbeing. At the same time, promoting the benefits of nature, particularly in the urban realm, provides a larger incentive for tree-planting and urban garden initiatives– ultimately mitigating climate-related issues. This is one way that cities can work towards achieving Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that focuses on ‘Urban Sustainability’. 

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