Why biodiversity loss is rising up the corporate agenda

The need to tackle nature loss is climbing both policy-makers’ and business leaders’ agendas, as the world’s diminishing biodiversity and climate change are inextricably linked

The United Nations held another COP conference this year, a much-postponed gathering that addressed nature loss. The October 2021 session of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in Kunming, China, is likely to be eclipsed by the far larger climate-change jamboree in Glasgow, especially as it was a virtual event for many delegates. When it comes to tackling the crises facing the planet, addressing biodiversity loss has always been in the shadow of cutting CO2 emissions, but events this year are finally pushing it into the spotlight.

“You cannot separate climate change and biodiversity loss. It’s not an either/or matter,” argues Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a coalition of companies and conservation groups. 

Her organisation was behind an open letter – signed by a dozen prominent business leaders, including former Unilever CEO Paul Polman (see p6) – sent to all heads of state before CBD COP15. This urged them to adopt an actionable framework for biodiversity along the lines of the Paris accord on climate change. 

In some respects, the move paid off. In what has become known as the Kunming declaration, more than 100 national governments pledged to place the protection of habitats at the heart of their decision-making.

Pledges of this type have been made and broken before, of course, but Zabey is optimistic. “Companies need the political certainty to move their investment, activate their innovation and shift their business model,” she says, adding that they cannot be expected to take the initiative and act in isolation. “The lever for accelerated commitments and more action from business will come from government policies.”

In February, HM Treasury published the final report of the independent review of the economics of biodiversity, led by Sir Partha Dasgupta, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Cambridge. The document is remarkable in several ways, none more so than the fact that it was commissioned by the finance ministry of one of the world’s leading economies, not an NGO. 

The report’s overriding message is that our current way of life is unsustainable. It argues that the value of the goods and services provided by nature is not reflected in their market price and that we need to start involving nature in financial decisions.

“Balance sheets should not just include what a government or business can gain by exploiting nature. They should also include what they will lose,” it states.

Dr Jonathan Barnard is CEO of the World Land Trust, an international conservation charity. He says that the report “does mark a shift in people’s thinking. Dasgupta recognises that protecting what we have would cost less than trying to restore it.”

The report catalysed a series of announcements that have helped to push biodiversity issues centre stage. In September, for instance, philanthropists and investors committed $5bn (£3.6bn) to nature restoration and conservation as part of the so-called 30 by 30 target, which aims to protect 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030.

A month later, the UN’s human rights council voted to recognise the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a basic human right. And, in another bid to give combating nature loss a stronger legal footing, a formal definition of the crime of ecocide (see panel) has also been published.

Barnard believes that these moves are hugely influential. “People could actually start to claim that their human rights are being breached if governments permit certain acts,” he says.

Companies need to make sure they understand, measure and value their most material impacts and dependencies on nature

More than half of the world’s GDP is at moderate or high risk owing to nature loss, notes Zabey, who sees this factor as a “strong economic case for businesses to step up”. But she adds that it’s not only a matter of releasing green investment. The whole financial system needs to recognise the value of nature, which needs to be embedded in every choice a company makes.

So what practical steps would Zabey recommend that businesses take? Assess, commit, act and advocate, she says. “Companies need to ensure that they understand, measure and value their most material impacts and dependencies on nature.” 

Any commitments a firm makes should be ambitious and supported by the latest research, leaning on initiatives such as the Global Commons Alliance’s new science-based targets for nature, Zabey says. “These will enable companies to ensure that they’re operating within the limits of the planet.”

Actions should be about restoring nature as well as minimising its depletion, while companies also need to spread the word. Regulators and policy-makers simply aren’t used to being contacted by companies wishing to talk about nature loss, she says, so this sort of tactic could prove highly effective.

In an example of concerted advocacy, more than 1,000 companies, with a combined annual revenue of £3.4tn, have backed Business for Nature’s ‘Call to Action’ campaign, which urges governments to adopt a global goal to halt and reverse nature loss before the end of the decade.

Signatories include H&M, which has committed to achieving a net-positive impact on biodiversity across its value chain. It recently started a project with the World Wide Fund for Nature to help 6,000 small cotton farmers adopt agricultural practices that could help to reverse biodiversity loss, especially in key tiger habitats in central India.

The World Land Trust also works closely with businesses, including a new partnership with FTSE-100 company Spirax-Sarco Engineering, as part of a push on the relatively new concept of land offsetting. As part of its sustainability strategy, the Cheltenham-based firm is calculating its land footprint – the total space occupied by its global operations – and then funding the saving of the same area of habitat through the trust’s ‘Buy an Acre’ scheme. 

“For many companies, land is the simple metric,” Barnard says. “Protect that and everything else follows.” 

How harming nature could be criminalised

In June, an independent panel of legal experts drew up a definition of ecocide, which they hope will be adopted by the International Criminal Court.

One of the main aims of an ecocide law would be to bring to justice business leaders who knowingly make decisions causing severe environmental damage, explains Jojo Mehta, co-founder and executive director of Stop Ecocide International, which convened the panel.

“The idea is to criminalise serious harm to nature at the highest level,” she says. “Once a law is in place, there will be prosecutions, although the real point is that it’s a protective measure. It also gives people a sense that damaging nature is not just something that’s an unfortunate side effect of economic activity.”

Making ecocide a crime is a way of creating a coherent set of global rules that cross borders, addressing the fact that many of the biggest polluters are multinational corporations, according to Mehta. She believes that, while it will take at least four years before the international community starts adopting legislation, the process is inevitable. 

“It’s important that organisations know it’s coming. Companies will start steering in a different direction,” she predicts. “Once you make something a crime, you create a taboo. That’s desperately needed, of course – we need to be recoiling from serious harm to the environment.”

Mehta also believes that with other legal developments such as the adoption of a clean environment as a human right, the courtroom could become the new front line in conservation. 

“There’s a growing awareness that something structural needs to be done,” she says. “At the moment, with all the goodwill and ambition in the world, we’re still only crawling in the new direction.”