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Why biodiversity is the next big step for corporate sustainability

Sep 9, 2019 8 MIN. READ

Pioneers of the biodiversity movement are helping organizations recognize dependencies and impacts on delicate ecosystems so they may establish sustainable business practices.

Pushing an important topic into mainstream awareness isn’t easy, especially when it’s a complex scientific issue. Although the groundwork has been laid and the cause has attracted a dedicated following, messages about business and biodiversity are still new to most enterprises. Organizations have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the planet by integrating biodiversity into their decision-making processes, as a handful already have. But to reach the critical mass required to halt the alarming rate of biodiversity decline, every company needs to act.

Why biodiversity is so important

Biodiversity and the life support systems it provides are often poorly understood. It underpins all the ecosystem services on which our society and economies rely, yet is generally overlooked, especially in the corporate world. The potential devastation from biodiversity damage is finally driving this critical issue to the forefront, with initiatives like the EU’s Business and Biodiversity Platform (EU B@B Platform) leading the charge.

The European Commission established EU B@B Platform in 2009. It provides a forum for business leaders, business organizations, financial institutions, research centers, NGOs, and governments to work together to integrate biodiversity considerations into business practices and contribute to halting biodiversity decline. The EU B@B Platform is making a difference by finding pioneers in the business and finance world to demonstrate best practices and move towards common ground on tools and methods.

Biodiversity is the variety of species in an ecosystem, which allows the delicate balance of life on Earth to sustain itself. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has highlighted nature’s dangerous decline and called for transformative change to save the biological systems on which we all rely. This call follows the recent publication of the global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services, which shows that there is no longer doubt that Earth is currently facing a sixth mass extinction and that human pressures are the main cause behind it.

It is estimated that 60% of the world's ecosystems have been degraded over the last 50 years due to unsustainable use. In fact, species abundance has decreased by 60% since 1970.

It’s now widely recognized that this ongoing loss presents a variety of interconnected risks that will have massive consequences for our societies and businesses. These risks are not only due to the role of biodiversity and ecosystem services as foundations of our economies but also reflect the strong dependencies that exist between conservation of biodiversity and other major risks that humanity currently faces. Despite this, few businesses see the risks arising from biodiversity, such as those identified by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the illustration below.

The loss of biodiversity directly impacts one-third of the global risks identified by the WEF in 2019. This sense of urgency stands in stark contrast with the results of the latest CEO survey issued by PwC in 2019, which revealed that, for the 1,293 surveyed CEOs across the globe, environmental damage and climate change are no longer among the top ten threats to the growth of their organizations.

The disconnection with the natural world is apparent in domestic and business settings worldwide and it’s growing. It’s easy to see why companies sometimes struggle to relate to this issue: we often associate biodiversity with a landscape of thick jungles, coral reefs, or wild animals—all of which feel remote and exotic from our vantage point inside corporate buildings. Similarly, we visualize biodiversity destruction through pictures of forest clearance, ocean pollution, and species extinction. However, these images don’t begin to capture the full complexity and significance of the living world—in addition to the large and obvious examples of biodiversity, there are intricate and invisible interactions between, among, and within species that play a significant role in our environmental health.

Biodiversity—the variability among living organisms—is not just the abundance of species (which is called diversity ‘between’ species). It is also the unique combination of genes of each living species (the diversity ‘within’ species), and the unique way species interact with each other (often in a dependency relationship) and the sun, air, soil, and water to form ecosystems (the diversity ‘between ecosystems’).

The complex interactions between living organisms and their physical environment provide services that support life both within and beyond the ecosystem. Just as coral reefs provide shelter for 25% of our marine life, we depend on them to sustain wild fish populations. Similarly, insects are not only vital to the diets of other animals, but they also sustain human food systems through pollination.

With this level of understanding, it becomes clear that biodiversity is the cornerstone on which ecosystems function and small alterations can undermine the services that they provide—and on which human activities depend.

Why do we need businesses to act for nature now?

As with climate action, the clock is ticking. There is limited time to reverse the situation described above and operate a paradigm shift in most corporations’ approach to nature conservation. We need to stop taking life support systems for granted. We must fundamentally rethink the way we interact with them and account for our impact and dependencies on nature.

The good news is that pioneering businesses have demonstrated how to bring about this shift, and innovative tools are being developed to help companies embark on this journey. In one example, the Dutch power grid operator TenneT has announced plans to rollout biodiversity efforts across all its 462 substations in Germany and the Netherlands. By sowing seeds of indigenous wildflowers around stations and allowing them to grow, the company was able to conserve 50-72% of insect fauna during a pilot program.

In addition to voluntary actions like TenneT’s initiative, there are an increasing number of businesses coming to realize their dependencies on nature, the risks associated with the loss of biodiversity for their organization, and the level of impact they have on ecosystems.

Good for biodiversity, good for business

Responsible business cases for the integration of biodiversity into decision-making processes are needed to inspire others. Some recent successes include:

  • Balfour Beatty, a leading international infrastructure group, illustrated how embracing net positive impact on biodiversity had transformed the way it does business and created value for all stakeholders. This has also helped the group recruit the talented staff needed to carry out challenging operations.
  • Sveaskog, Sweden's largest forest owner, decided in 2002 to designate 20% of its productive forest land for conservation purposes. This enabled the company to obtain a license to operate without compromising profitability.
  • TenneT, a leading electricity provider, showed that it is possible to significantly improve the conservation of local pollinators by putting in place small voluntary actions which specifically target them. For example, the organization created areas for annual and perennial flowers and engaged local stakeholders willing to maintain them. This, in turn, contributed to the acceptance of the business in the community.
  • ASN Bank, a Dutch retail bank, decided to lead by example and set itself the objective of achieving a net positive impact on biodiversity through its investments and loans by 2030.

Responsible business cases are growing, but these are not enough to make a significant difference. It will take a coordinated effort to transition towards a critical mass of businesses integrating nature into their decision-making processes and hence create a new normal.

To this end, business leaders made multiple calls to mainstream biodiversity into core business practices across sectors. An Action Agenda for Nature and People was, for example, launched after the 2018 UN Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. It aims at galvanizing actions and voluntary commitments from businesses to promote nature and people in the run-up to the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference in China.

The focus of respective biodiversity hopes is now centered on this upcoming conference, which is expected to result in an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework—creating a New Deal for Nature. In the same vein as the construction of the Paris Climate Agreement, there is a comprehensive and participatory process in place to develop this framework to which all stakeholders are invited to contribute.

Where should efforts be focused ahead of the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference?

Businesses, financial institutions, and governments must actively champion biodiversity. They need to join together to seize the global momentum to create a New Deal for Nature and embark on a paradigm shift.

Four key steps for pioneering businesses include:

  • Embark on the journey to measure your impact on nature and assess to what extent your activities are exposed to the risks associated with biodiversity loss. Other businesses are currently attempting to standardize biodiversity accounting approaches—engaging in this process now would provide significant first-mover advantages;
  • Engage in dialogue and cooperation with other pioneering businesses and financial institutions to gain a deeper understanding from practice, consolidate lessons learned, and identify opportunities and solutions for further up-scaling;
  • Join the transition towards positive impact finance to decrease the negative impact of investment strategies and use the power of the financial world to move towards net positive impact;
  • Participate in ongoing policy developments at the national, regional, or international level to make sure biodiversity concerns are integrated into all the relevant programs. A key opportunity in this field is the roll-out of the EU Sustainable Finance Action Plan, which will continue in the coming years.

To keep on top of these developments and engage in debate, the EU B@B Platform provides a good first step. It offers access to a network of pioneering businesses and financial institutions to build understanding, partake in discussion with peers, and learn from early movers. The European Business and Nature Summit, organized by the EU B@B Platform and other partners for 7th and 8th November 2019, then provides an excellent opportunity to develop expertise and expand your network. It will serve as a regional steppingstone in the global run to strengthen the role of businesses in supporting nature conservation and its sustainable use and the development of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

ICF coordinates the EU B@B Platform for the European Commission. We can help you to become a company of the future but also to find your way around the complex topic of business and biodiversity. Armed with the right advice and expertise, your company can make a significant, positive contribution to one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

By Jerome Kisielewicz and Yann Verstraeten