Integrated systems: biodiversity loss and climate change must be tackled together

Biodiversity loss is often overshadowed by climate change, but new tools and regulations could lead to better protection for irreplaceable species and ecosystems

During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people have re-engaged with nature. Life under lockdown has increased people’s appreciation for urban parks, for example, and highlighted how something as simple as a countryside walk can improve one’s mood. In fact, the ways in which nature benefits people’s physical and mental health have never been more obvious.

These benefits are highly valued by the public. ‘Nature Positive?,’ a new report by WSP and independent think tank Bright Blue, analysed people’s attitude toward the UK’s natural environment, and found that the majority value the mental wellbeing (60%) and improved physical wellbeing (54%) benefits of natural environments. But without an urgent effort to tackle biodiversity loss, these invaluable natural benefits could be lost forever.

The scale of this loss cannot be underestimated. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around one million plant and animal species now face extinction. Despite this grave threat to biodiversity, progress on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which were established more than a decade ago to protect and conserve natural systems, has been agonisingly slow.

Some of this lack of progress is arguably down to the fact that biodiversity loss is often overshadowed by climate change. But really, they should be viewed as equally important and interconnected issues, says Tom Butterworth, deputy head of ecology and technical director for natural capital and biodiversity at WSP. “The fires that are more common now across Australia and the United States because of climate change – they are destroying biodiversity and releasing carbon,” he says. “You’ve got this integrated system, and the more we think about it as an integrated system the better.”

That integration extends to the way climate change is addressed too. In cities, for example, nature can help reduce the heat island effect and decrease stormwater runoff. The most cost-effective approaches to sequestering carbon currently also involve harnessing nature, such as planting trees or restoring peat bogs. 

But urgent action from businesses and governments, like the upcoming COP26 conference, is needed to scale up nature-based solutions and halt biodiversity loss – and not just for the sake of the planet.

Assessing impacts

Pharmaceutical firms, energy companies, the agriculture sector and construction industry all rely upon ecosystem services for their survival. In fact, as Dr Lee Matthews, assistant professor in business and society at Nottingham University Business School, says: “There isn’t a business that doesn’t depend on the services that are produced by biodiversity dependent ecosystems.”

Biodiversity loss is therefore an existential threat to many firms. Or as Gerard Bos, director of the IUCN Global Business and Biodiversity Programme, puts it: “There is no business on a dead planet.” He also makes the point that “we are losing the wealth of knowledge needed to cure diseases or to drive innovation, because a lot of the solutions are actually in or inspired by nature.”

Clearly, then, businesses must stop exploiting the ecosystems they and the public depend upon. But to date, many have arguably been complacent about the threat posed by biodiversity loss; as shown by the fact that the value assigned to nature when assessing and executing new developments is often zero.

There isn’t a business that doesn’t depend on the services that are produced by biodiversity dependent ecosystems

Several tools aim to address this by encouraging businesses to include the true value of nature in their operations. The Natural Capital Protocol, for example, is designed to help organisations identify, measure and value their direct and indirect impacts and dependencies on natural capital. No net loss and net gain approaches to biodiversity, meanwhile, can help developers protect natural environments.

To achieve no net loss, organisations must follow the mitigation hierarchy, which requires them to avoid, minimise, restore and offset their impact on biodiversity. Net gain approaches to development, which aim to leave natural environments in a better state than they were before, are also broadly supported by the public: WSP’s ‘Nature Positive? ‘report found that on the subject of new infrastructure development, nearly three-quarters (74%) of the public back a requirement for developers to enhance the natural environment when building new houses.

Tools and regulations

In the UK, some local authorities have integrated no net loss or net gain policies into their planning policies, though the detail of what’s required often varies. This can complicate matters for developers. But the mandatory biodiversity net gain requirement in the UK Government’s Environment Bill, which will require every development to deliver a 10% improvement in “biodiversity value,” should help to provide greater clarity and push biodiversity net gain approaches further into the mainstream.

“In terms of biodiversity net gain, our members have consistently highlighted the benefits of having a simple, consistent approach that allows certainty when it comes to delivering nature-based outcomes in development,” says Philip Box, public affairs and policy officer at the UK Green Building Council.

The Environment Bill also includes a statutory target to halt species decline by 2030, which should provide further impetus to efforts to stop biodiversity loss. The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, a global initiative that aims to build upon the success of the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, is also pushing for biodiversity disclosure to become a normal part of company reporting.

While the latter might sound like a challenge to business, “I think it needs to be seen as an opportunity, because at the moment we’re all ignoring the risks to our businesses that the loss of biodiversity could cause,” says Butterworth, who strongly believes that “companies will not thrive through the 21st century if they don’t take this [biodiversity] into account.”

To meet this challenge, more biodiversity tools are undoubtedly needed. Matthews points out that the majority of those available today are based on attributing a monetary value to biodiversity, which he says poses both a technical and ethical issue. “According to the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, the valuation of biodiversity is often not included in natural capital assessments because the ‘economic techniques to quantify and monetize these values are inadequate,’ biodiversity’s role in ecosystem functioning is ‘hidden,’ and the information and data required are ‘not easily available.’ These are fundamental problems with the financial valuation approach that, in my opinion, cannot be fixed.”

He adds: “But even if the advocates of financial valuation were to develop a viable method, the ethics of many of the people most passionate about biodiversity conservation would lead them to reject the valuation produced.” As such, he believes that developing tools that will help businesses to operationalise biocentric ethics may be a more effective – albeit challenging – way to fight biodiversity loss.

Aside from more tools, greater access to biodiversity expertise and a better understanding of biodiversity issues at the highest levels of business and government is also desperately needed. As Butterworth says, “We need the wide engagement and understanding that we’ve got with climate change.” Otherwise, biodiversity – and all the benefits it provides to businesses, economies, people and communities – will be lost forever.