Business and biodiversity: monitoring species and ecosystems to deliver nature-based solutions

Explore the importance of biodiversity monitoring in ensuring nature-based solutions have an environmental impact and the role of companies and new technologies in collecting and sharing information.

Dr P.J. Stephenson

01 Jan, 2021

Business and biodiversity: monitoring species and ecosystems to deliver nature-based solutions

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity refers to the diversity of life on Earth, including species (animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms), the genetic make-up of species, and the habitats and ecosystems species create. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for nature, although nature usually includes the land, water, oceans and air in which species live.

Why biodiversity is important for business

Biodiversity is vitally important for people, providing a direct source of food, water, medicines and energy, as well as broader ecosystem services that regulate the Earth’s natural systems on which we all depend. For the same reasons, biodiversity is critical for businesses. Many companies depend on animal and plant species for their raw materials, such as trees for wood and paper, or fungi for fermentation; many others rely on key ecosystem services to guarantee their operations and supply chains, such as the provision of freshwater and healthy soils, the pollination of plants, the regulation of diseases, floods and droughts, and numerous cultural, spiritual and recreational services.

This dependency means that any risk to biodiversity represents a risk to business. And in recent years, that risk has exploded.

Biodiversity is in a perilous state. Overexploitation of natural resources, compounded by human-induced climate change, has led to a significant decline in species and ecosystems that many people are calling a global crisis.

Habitats and ecosystems are being lost, degraded and polluted

: for example, 32 million hectares of tropical forest were lost between 2010 and 2015; marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980; while

populations of vertebrates

(mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) have declined by 68% since 1970. According to

IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species

, over 40,000 species worldwide are known to be threatened with extinction. This figure is likely to be a massive underestimate given our

lack of knowledge

on many plants, fungi and invertebrates, and some estimates suggest 1 million species are at risk.

These biodiversity declines have

economic implications

, with nature estimated to contribute between US$44 and 150 trillion to the world’s economy. Since the loss of biodiversity will impact many business operations and production processes, companies need to be part of the solution.

There is a growing recognition of the need to transform the relationship between business and biodiversity, including how businesses account for and disclose their impacts on nature. Many investors and stakeholders already see the potential downside of businesses that fail to address both climate and biodiversity, but biodiversity monitoring and reporting falls far behind climate at the moment. Policy and legislation incentives, including new directives from the EU, are likely to create an upsurge in corporate biodiversity commitments in coming years. Companies that are considering their overall, long-term impact on nature now are also likely to find it easier to raise capital and insure assets in the future.

What business can do for biodiversity

Businesses must address the

urgent grand challenge of biodiversity

if they are to manage risks, identify opportunities and survive and thrive into the future. There are many actions that businesses can take today, not only to mitigate their impacts on biodiversity but also to actively contribute to global nature conservation. Examples include choosing raw materials from verified or certified sustainable sources, and adapting company operations to reduce impacts on the environment, such as selecting sites that avoid threatened species, or using machinery that creates less noise and pollution.

There is also a growing trend for companies to adopt and invest in

nature-based solutions

, which are actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore ecosystems in ways that provide both human well-being and biodiversity benefits. They result in a net-gain in biodiversity, with species and habitats left in a better state than before the intervention.

Nature-based solutions are numerous and diverse. They often involve working with nature to address societal challenges like climate change, food security or human health. Examples include initiatives to protect natural habitats that are strongholds for carbon and biodiversity; restoring degraded landscapes to improve ecosystem services like water provision; or applying sustainable practices in farming to regenerate soil, plant native trees or even set some land aside. Such efforts increase the diversity of life above and below ground while storing carbon and helping ensure food security.

Investments in nature-based solutions need to increase if the world is to meet its biodiversity and climate targets and avoid the irreversible degradation of ecosystems.

One

UN estimate

suggests we need to close a USD 4.1 trillion financing gap in nature by 2050, meaning investments in nature need to triple by 2030 and quadruple by 2050.

The opportunity to help monitor biodiversity and pursue a nature-positive future

To ensure a return on such investment and for companies to achieve their net-gain or nature-positive goals, understanding the effectiveness of actions for biodiversity is essential. Effectiveness can only be assessed if appropriate monitoring systems are put in place. Fortunately, businesses have the opportunity to support the collection and disclosure of a variety of

biodiversity data

that can help solve this challenge.

Data collected by businesses can support environmental disclosures and sustainability reporting, third party performance assessments and ratings, and corporate communications. Data can also support site-level and corporate-level environmental management, helping determine what actions worked well and less well and what adaptive management actions are required. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that

nature-based solutions require a suitable monitoring plan

specifically so they can be managed adaptively based on evidence. Monitoring should therefore be an integral part of business efforts to improve biodiversity. On the other hand, failure to monitor and to verify the impact can open companies up to accusations of

greenwashing

.

Biodiversity remains daunting for many companies. Assessing how to plan nature-positive work is often hard enough for a company unfamiliar with the issues, but collecting data on biodiversity can be an even greater challenge. As a result, there have been numerous recent efforts to develop

metrics specifically for businesses

. Whilst some of these indicators may prove useful in some settings, there are numerous challenges with them, and none work in all business settings. Conservation biologists and practitioners, such as protected area authorities, conservation NGOs and numerous other actors, have been monitoring biodiversity for decades. The corporate sector should therefore learn lessons from them.

4 Key biodiversity monitoring solutions

Several key solutions derived from the conservation sector need to be translated into a business context to enhance biodiversity monitoring. Essentially, businesses can start by addressing four main issues.

1. Set appropriate goals

Good planning is a prerequisite for good monitoring. Businesses need to set appropriate science-based goals and targets for their biodiversity work, using approaches developed by the likes of

IUCN

and the

Science-based Targets Network

and based on assessments of company impacts and dependencies on biodiversity. Increasingly, corporate biodiversity goals need to move away from simply aiming to achieve no net loss to attaining net gain or

nature positive goals

. This will mean factoring in biodiversity more explicitly to many existing sustainability approaches, such as regenerative agriculture and certified production schemes.

2. Identify suitable indicators that can measure those goals

Companies need to select key performance indicators that measure not only their actions on biodiversity, but also the pressures faced by biodiversity and mitigated by the company. Companies also need to ensure wherever possible they measure the state of biodiversity in their areas of intervention or influence, as only by measuring increases in variables such as species populations, species diversity and habitat cover, can the true impact of nature-based solutions be demonstrated.

3. Identify the most appropriate way of collecting data

Some data of relevance to the company in the planning or monitoring of biodiversity may be available in global databases such as

GBIF

(the Global Biodiversity Information Facility) or the Living Planet Index, as well as regional or national databases. Tools like

IBAT

(the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool) can help access and process data. However, most companies will have to collect primary data for at least some of their sites and supply chains. A monitoring plan, preferably developed with internal or external biodiversity experts, should define how each indicator will be measured (what methods are most relevant and cost effective), when and where the company will measure the indicators, and who will measure them. Given that biodiversity is not the core business of most companies, working with partners (e.g., international organisations, NGOs, academic institutions, consultants) will remain important, especially in accessing the data and expertise needed for monitoring or collecting data.

Three of the many examples of companies teaming up with scientific bodies or NGOs to help with monitoring species and habitats include: Nespresso’s partnerships with

Cornell University

and

IUCN

focused on birds and forests in coffee landscapes; the

Boskalis-Wetlands

International collaboration on coastal ecosystems; and partnerships such as the Offshore Coalition for Energy and Nature, led by the Renewables Grid Initiative, where NGOs like NABU and Birdlife International have helped energy providers assess

data needs for vulnerable seabird species.

4. Use data for management and reporting

reporting on their impacts and dependencies and aligning investments to increase resilience across their supply chain. This will be most effective if the data are used in easy-to-interpret formats such as maps, graphs and dashboards.

Companies that start reporting will be ahead of the curve. Whilst some countries like the UK are still

lagging behind

in creating policies and legal obligations for corporate environmental disclosure, legislative frameworks elsewhere are shifting towards more non-financial disclosures, as demonstrated by the EU’s Non-Financial Reporting

Directive

and the proposed Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. In parallel, the Platform for Sustainable Finance (including private sector representatives) is developing details on which company operations can be considered sustainable as part of a new green taxonomy. Any company monitoring its biodiversity performance will be well-equipped to meet such obligations.

The role of innovation and technology

In many cases, monitoring still entails people on the ground, in the air or under the water making direct observations. However, the role of innovation and technology cannot be under-estimated, and a number of companies are already supporting the development and use of new monitoring technologies. Advances in

remote sensing

in particular have revolutionised the reach, the efficiency and the cost-effectiveness of monitoring schemes. Satellite-based remote sensing data are more widely and cheaply available than ever before, offering the chance to monitor land use and habitat change at high resolutions, and thereby track habitat restoration efforts as well as habitat loss. Sensors used on land have also evolved and proliferated, with camera traps and acoustic recording devices helping to monitor species presence (and sometimes abundance and diversity) in diverse habitats, sometimes deployed through drones.

Similar remote sensing devices (and autonomous vehicles to deploy them) have been developed for use underwater, enhancing marine and

freshwater

biodiversity monitoring. Methods are also rapidly improving for identifying species from fragments of genetic material in soil, water or air samples. This so-called environmental DNA monitoring is increasingly being used to assess the presence of species in different habitats. As internet access and smartphone technology improve, there is also growing scope for the sharing of data in large citizen science databases such as eBird and

iNaturalist

, further advancing the availability of biodiversity data for monitoring.

The way forward

Biodiversity will become less daunting for companies if they take some simple steps to assess their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity and set measurable goals and indicators. Advice, guidance and working examples are proliferating as more and more companies step up to help address the global biodiversity crisis. Learning lessons from others to set biodiversity goals and to use the latest methods, technologies and tools to collect data, will allow companies to monitor their impacts and ultimately demonstrate their contributions to a world where nature thrives.

Dr P.J. Stephenson

Earthly Biodiversity Advisor

Chair, IUCN SSC Species Monitoring Specialist Group

Research Fellow, University of Lausanne

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to invest in nature and reverse climate change. If you want to invest in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,

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