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Swiss Re: How nature can impact physical and mental wellbeing

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“We have been observing or realizing for a while now that within the scientific community, including medical research, natural research, and environmental economic research, the way one looks at diseases and nature has become more and more combined,” said Schelske, who said that triggered his interest because it’s his role to integrate biodiversity into reinsurance and look at the role of natural assets for the risks that are covered.

“In my research, I found more and more papers that were looking at the role of nature in prevention for mental health risk, but also for things like heat wave-related risk in the area of cardiovascular and pollution-related risk in the area of respiratory diseases,” he added. “This was very interesting to me, so I decided to look in greater detail, and compile anecdotal evidence [and] the meta studies to find evidence of the positive contribution of nature for health […] such that one would understand the role and the value of nature for risk prevention.”

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The global economic burden of mental illness is projected to reach $6 trillion by 2030, up from $2.5 trillion in 2010. But Swiss Re forecasts that $60 billion could be saved every year if the impacts of mental health conditions are reduced by just 1% by 2030 – and that can be achieved by creating more parks, planting more trees, and increasing biodiversity in order to improve people’s mental health, life satisfaction, and happiness.

“It’s a public issue and an individual health issue,” stressed Schelske. “If we can better understand the positive forces of nature, and if we can use the benefits of nature proactively, we can reduce health costs. That’s interesting of course for the reinsurance industry, for our clients, and also for the public sector and every individual around the world that spends a huge amount of money on health care.”

Other key findings of the ‘Biodiversity and the Benefits for Human Health’ report were that markers for cardiovascular disease were shown to improve with better access to nature against control groups in studies from the US, Spain, South Korea and Canada; and cities with more trees have better air quality, equating to health savings from pollution-related respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, heat-related mortality is increasing across the world with climate change and more frequent heat waves, but well-vegetated cities have been found to cope better with heat.

In 2010, an environmental pollution study by Dr. David J. Nowak, entitled ‘Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States’ found that tree coverage in the US removed 17.4 million tons of pollutants in 2010, equating to health savings of US$6.8 billion. And Schelske has identified other research papers that reach similar conclusions regarding the mitigating impact of nature on mental health, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases.

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“The contribution of nature is huge,” Schelske told Insurance Business. “Generating health savings of US$6.8 billion by capturing the benefits of fresh air produced by forest and woodland – that’s no small amount. If you aggregate these figures out for entire countries or public health systems, they become huge numbers – and that’s interesting for health positivity, for insurance, but also for generating a different view on nature conservation and the impacts of biodiversity.

“Nature is at risk. The number of threatened species grows, and ecosystems are being destroyed. But we believe that nature has an intrinsic value, and it provides ecosystem services that are material to industry, and our own personal health and wellbeing. Therefore, nature conservation is important because health matters to each and every one of us.”

Based on the findings of the report, Schelske is encouraging insurers to “identify hotspots in the data” where they could potentially work with key stakeholders – the public sector, policy makers, urban planners etc. – to improve biodiversity and build out green spaces.

“We often talk about ‘building back green’ and ‘building back better’ – and those investments need to be enabled and protected with insurance,” said Schelske. “There’s a property and casualty (P&C) insurance message in there, which is that those who want to invest in nature to improve health prevention and ultimately reduce health costs will need financial backing and insurance protection. The P&C industry can potentially help to provide coverage to protect things like green roofs, green building facades, and also city parks and green spaces against extreme weather and other risks.

“From a life and health perspective, the study supports our clients that are extremely vocal regarding risk prevention, and those that set healthcare incentives for individuals. Over the years, we’ve learned about the individual health factors – the importance of physical activity, a healthy diet, no smoking etc. – and this, is a nice add-on where insurers could say: ‘Every 30 minutes spent in nature also does good for your mental health.’ They could combine positive incentives (e.g. vouchers, or credit points) for physical activity and time in nature – and it will be interesting to see if they have a healthier population and less claims over the long-run.”

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