Ecosystem Health Check: A Look Ahead at the US’ First National Nature Assessment

The United States and human civilization face a nature crisis. Our ecosystems are degrading alarmingly, with dire consequences for people’s health, well-being, and the economy. In 2026, the federal government will launch a groundbreaking initiative known as the National Nature Assessment (NNA), the first attempt at evaluating the state of nature in the United States. It will be instrumental in identifying critical threats to nature and determining necessary actions to safeguard it.

Fourteen federal agencies are joining forces in a project known as the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which also conducts the U.S. Climate Assessment every four years, to assess the nation’s natural systems. Using many sources, from local indigenous knowledge to scientific evidence, the NNA will look at the state of U.S. lands, waters, wildlife, biodiversity, and ecosystems, their interconnectedness with the economy, public health, climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, social equity, and national security.

Taking stock of nature’s state is timely. U.S. policy is committed to conserving 30% of the nation’s lands and water by 2030. The NAA will help shed light on how much progress the United States has made in achieving that target.

The NNA will be released in two phases. The first, set to appear in 2026, will focus on the current state of nature and future trends. The second, slated for release in 2028, will delve into the specific threats to nature and the corresponding protective measures required to stay on track to restoring a balanced, sustainable relationship with the environment.

Mapping Human Relationships with Nature

This nature assessment must provide a common framework for measuring nature to connect and inform the decision-making processes of policymakers, businesses, communities, and civil society organizations. To ensure its relevance and usefulness, the assessment process will involve scientists, naturalists, the public, and Tribal Nations to gather input about the questions they want answered to help provide meaningful, people- and nature-centered outcomes.

The members of USGCRP will also consult with other countries and global research organizations, such as the United Nations Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services and Future Earth, which are international research policy advisory agencies, to draw upon their science-based frameworks and conceptual models.

The key themes that will emerge in the NAA are expected to include, among others:

  • Development of a Natural Capital Account to standardize the reporting of environmental statistics;
  • Identification of ecosystems and species that are in decline;
  • Identifying how funds for ecosystem restoration can successfully protect declining species;
  • Support fair economic prosperity and strategies to address inequities of access to nature in communities.

The project also seeks to identify innovative ideas to bolster infrastructure resilience. For example, it will look at how investments in the restoration of mangroves and salt marshes can safeguard roads and nearby infrastructure from storms and erosion, as well as how creating ‘sponge cities‘ with natural infrastructure solutions like rain gardens and permeable pavements in urban centers can help manage stormwater runoff to prevent flooding.

The NAA recognizes the vital contributions of ecosystem services, the contributions nature makes to a good life and the economy, and how these resources are distributed across our society. The research will study the direct and indirect ways nature benefits us, from providing clean air, water, and food to mitigating climate change, protecting against natural disasters, and enhancing mental and physical well-being.

Threats to Nature

While human impacts are a focus of the NAA research, the program will look squarely at the state of nature, from the extent of environmental degradation and loss resulting from habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change, to the growing threat of invasive species and tropical disease as the climate warms. The costs of these threats will profoundly impact our economy. For example, the World Health Organization reports that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will add 250,000 deaths a year from malnutrition, malaria, and heat stress.

The NNA will also identify crucial actions to safeguard nature’s long-term health. Conservation, restoration, and sustainable management of natural resources will be pivotal components of the action plan.

Other topics will be in focus as the reports are made public, such as the connection between nature and climate change, the significance of nature in promoting social equity and environmental justice, nature’s role in enhancing public health, the economic value of nature, and the challenges of conservation and restoration in a rapidly warming world.

Industrial Impacts

Many industries, including agriculture, energy, and transportation, are expected to be scrutinized for their unsustainable practices. But the project will also explore positive changes by industries across different sectors to demonstrate how significant corporations can contribute to a nature-conscious economy, hopefully inspiring others to follow suit.

In agriculture, companies prioritize biodiversity preservation through regenerative agricultural practices. General Mills, a global food industry leader, sets an influential example with its “Harvest Initiative,” a partnership with farmers to promote regenerative agricultural techniques. General Mills plans to bring over one million acres of regenerative farmland into production by 2030.

As a major contributor to climate change, the energy industry holds the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing many of the goals of the NNA. The cost and extent of modernizing the electric infrastructure, converting to renewable power generation, and promoting energy efficiency will be essential to the transition to a sustainable, carbon-neutral society. NextEra Energy, the United States’ largest utility and clean energy company, committed $50 billion to renewable energy and infrastructure projects over the next five years. The results of these investments, which will produce more than 40 gigawatts of renewable energy per year, enough to power about 30 million homes, will be measured as part of the NAA project.

Similarly, the transportation industry contributes significantly to air pollution and carbon emissions. Reaching the nation’s carbon emissions goals requires the sector to build sustainable mobility solutions, such as commuter and long-haul passenger trains, an electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and a switch to alternative fuels. Siemens Mobility, the largest rail and intelligent road manufacturer in the United States, recently announced a $220 million advanced manufacturing and rail services plant in Lexington, North Carolina. Set to begin operations in 2024, the facility will create 500 new jobs, making it one of the city’s leading employers. Siemens is reducing the environmental impact of its rail activities by electrifying more of its products and researching new technologies like hydrogen-powered trains.

Beyond industry, individuals can also help protect nature with simple actions such as choosing sustainable products and reducing consumption.

Informing Your Choices

The NNA is comprehensive, designed to deliver helpful information and actions at every level of the economy. The reports will shed light on the environmental consequences of food waste, explaining how consumers can take action by planning meals carefully, composting food scraps, and supporting local food banks or organizations that rescue surplus food.

More information showing the impacts — and the cost and economic benefits of electrification — are expected to support information campaigns to encourage the public to Embrace renewable energy options like solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. The NNA can provide clear, scientifically validated information leading to significantly reduced carbon emissions and a cleaner energy future.

The report’s most significant impact may be that it equips shoppers with valuable information about the state of nature in the United States and worldwide. Helping consumers to prioritize sustainable products and greener services, reduce waste, and influence businesses to provide more environmental benefits in their products and practices can exert significant economic influence on corporations that have been slow to adopt sustainable practices.

Shoppers don’t have to wait for the NNA to be available. Adopting a mindful approach to consumption can help lessen your environmental impact and reduce the demand for resource-intensive products. Look for third-party packaging, regenerative, and other certifications from organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade USA, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

If they heed and act on the insights from the NNA by making conscious decisions that support nature, consumers could hold the key to a greener future.