Time for business to learn about the birds and the bees

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Climate change is finally making headlines the world over with a level of urgency to make people sit up and listen. This focus is desperately needed, but the irony is that it could also be our undoing as we become increasingly blinkered to the perilous state of broader natural systems.

Climate represents just one of the nine planetary boundaries seen as critical to maintaining a safe operating space for humanity. The others, ranging from ozone depletion to freshwater to biosphere integrity (which encompasses biodiversity and species extinctions), are equally important.

And all are interconnected and interdependent. Which means that we can’t solve for climate unless we are working with healthy natural systems.

The evidence clearly indicates that we have already exceeded the safe operating space for biodiversity. Human behaviour is leading to the collapse of ecosystems around the world with disturbing frequency, and scientists have warned we could be in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event.

So what does all this mean for business?

For many of us, biodiversity brings to mind the big iconic species – the polar bears, the tigers, the whales. In fact, biodiversity represents the variety of life on Earth in all of its forms and interactions. And it is critical to the effective functioning of the planet’s life support systems.

The components of biodiversity make up ecosystems, which in turn provide us with ecosystem services – from the drainage and filtration services provided by wetlands to the air purification services provided by plants, and the pollination services provided by insects to grow crops. In money terms alone, it is estimated that the services ecosystems provide to us (and most of them currently free of charge!) are worth around $125trn a year.

Our hopes for a better world as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals are underpinned by the need for healthy natural systems. Without them, we won’t be able to solve hunger or poverty, or reduce inequality.

But as organisations we have the tendency of operating in silos, and as a result many companies are failing to understand the profound ways in which the success – indeed the ultimate survival – of their business, is inextricably linked to the health of global biodiversity and ecosystems.

For businesses in sectors like agriculture or tourism, whose products and services are directly dependent on nature, the connections may be obvious. If there is a flood or drought, for example, we can point directly to a crop failure that impacts an agriculture business. But what are the root causes of the flood or drought – is it due to disruptions in natural systems far from the site of the crop failure? A forest clear-cut that has led to significant erosion that is silting up local rivers?

What about key food crops being wiped out by disease? Of the 6,000 food crops cultivated, we now rely on just nine species for 6% of our food, meaning our food system is extremely vulnerable. How can we maintain the diversity of crop species in ways that ensure long-term security?  

What should business do?

While modern agricultural techniques and our food production systems account for a huge proportion of the damage being inflicted upon the planet, all businesses have a role to play in protecting and restoring biodiversity.

1.       Assess Impacts and Dependencies

To take meaningful action, businesses first need to understand both the impacts they are having on biodiversity directly and through their supply chains, and the dependence of their business on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The complexity of nature makes measurement and reporting challenging, but there are several guides. As a start, check out the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s freely available Business Ecosystems Training course, and the Natural Capital Coalition’s Natural Capital Protocol, soon to include a supplementary guide on biodiversity.

2.       Take a Regenerative Approach

Once you have identified the areas of impact and dependency most material to your business, you can develop strategies to mitigate. But why stop there? When it comes to reversing biodiversity loss there are many opportunities for businesses to go beyond simply ceasing to cause further harm by taking a regenerative approach and making a long-term net-positive contribution.

For landowners, this might mean setting aside areas for restoration or rewilding. The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020 – estimated by scientists to make a significant contribution to tackling climate change while also creating significant economic benefit. Others might consider dedicating a portion of corporate resources to biodiversity protection or proactively supporting urban biodiversity initiatives.

3.       Invest for the Long Term

Our economic and political systems favor short-term gain over long-term rewards. Nature almost always loses in this equation. In just a few years investors have started to change the conversation on climate change through their growing weariness of stranded assets in the oil and gas sectors.

It’s time financial institutions fully understand the implications of their lending policies in connection with biodiversity, and stop supporting high-risk projects. Insurance companies also have a major part to play by increasing premiums for businesses that are ratcheting up risk through the destruction of natural systems like coral reefs and mangrove forests, proven through a number of studies to protect coastal communities and assets from storm surges and rising sea levels

4.       Advocate for Change

Businesses, and particularly large corporates, have enormous lobbying power. To drive policy change, business leaders need to advocate for stricter legislation that will protect biodiversity. In 2020 governments around the world will come together in China to renegotiate the Convention on Biological Diversity – the global framework governing biodiversity protection. Many organisations around the world are calling for a broadening of this agreement and making it legally binding – business has a critical role to play in calling for this new global deal.

Biodiversity loss is one of seven megatrends identified in Forum for the Future’s recent Future of Sustainability report as having a very significant role in shaping the future. But while the outlook is grim and demands urgent action, there is still hope that we can pull things back from the brink. The restorative power of nature is extraordinary. Rather than buckle under the burden of responsibility, businesses should feel empowered by the opportunities in front of them to become a force for good. Let’s get started!

Jane Lawton is chief development and communications officer at Forum for the Future