World leaders at COP15 agreed to maintain the integrity, connectivity and resilience of all ecosystems

Biodiversity emerges from environmental jungle

Image credit: Shutterstock

Climate change dominates the environmental agenda, but biodiversity is equally a vital collective responsibility and businesses must wake up to this.

The UN’s Cop15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal last December has been hailed as a turning point in the global approach to loss of biological diversity, marking a critical moment for addressing what many see as a long neglected issue.

After two weeks of intense negotiations, world leaders pledged to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 by protecting at least 30 per cent of terrestrial and marine areas. Currently just 17 per cent and 10 per cent of the world’s land and oceans are protected.

The agreement follows another significant pledge made at the COP26 UN climate conference in 2021, where leaders and key forest nations pledged to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. G20 leaders also made a pledge in 2021 to plant one trillion trees worldwide by 2030 to mitigate climate change.

Despite rising interest and action on climate goals in recent years, some have argued that a crucial focus on biodiversity and nature has been lacking in the environmental policies of politicians, businesses and investors alike. This is despite the fact that climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically linked, with the rapid destruction of ecosystems across the world leading both to greenhouse gas emissions and loss of species.

The outcome of COP15 is one sign that this is now changing. But there are others.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in interest from businesses in biodiversity over the past year,” says Clara Rowe, chief executive of nature restoration tracker Restor, noting an increased presence of businesses at the UN climate and biodiversity conferences. She attributes the interest both to consumers demanding greener products and to a rising number of nature-positive commitments set by businesses themselves.

“In the past when companies thought about biodiversity, it was either in the context of [how] endangered species might expose them to legal liability, or it was through a pretty narrow lens of reputational risk,” says Rob McDonald, lead scientist of nature-based solutions at US-based charity The Nature Conservancy.

Companies are now “thinking more broadly” about whether they are having a positive impact on biodiversity, says McDonald, even if achieving this can be complicated. Protecting biodiversity requires a multi-faceted approach, he says, which involves considering everything from understanding how sourcing materials impacts ecosystems to ensuring that operations don’t contaminate freshwater sources.

World leaders at COP15 agreed to maintain the integrity, connectivity and resilience of all ecosystems

Image credit: Shutterstock

A plethora of new technologies and businesses, as well as increased pressure to assess, disclose and reduce companies’ impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, have accompanied the rising focus.

The past decade has seen an explosion of tools aimed at protecting and rehabilitating ecosystems and biodiversity across the globe. From online monitoring platforms to tree-planting drones and virtual currencies that represent the value of nature, companies are finding innovative ways to track restoration efforts and raise much-needed funds for conservation.

One important area of change has been in ecosystem monitoring. After all, establishing baselines and tracking how well an ecosystem is faring are important first steps towards any biodiversity action. Being able to share this data publicly also increases transparency for companies as they face rising scrutiny of environmental claims.

Remote-sensing technologies are now increasingly being used to help track the health of local environmental projects. These technologies can help companies considering investing in biodiversity initiatives or who want to better understand the impact of their own business on local biodiversity.

“Monitoring biodiversity, and the projects that protect and restore it, provides the insights, transparency and trust that help projects achieve greater success, faster,” says Rowe. “Monitoring is especially important for businesses that want to prove they are having a net positive impact on nature.”

Restor is an online platform which has been called “a Google Maps for nature”. It allows users to map and view nature restoration and conservation projects worldwide via satellite imagery. It also provides ecological insights into projects and connects them to funding and networks needed for scale-up, says Rowe.

“Businesses can use Restor to understand the ecological context of the places where their operations involve nature, including deforestation history,” she says. In particular, Restor can help businesses with monitoring by providing a platform where projects can be shared publicly and transparently, (although Rowe notes the site doesn’t currently host datasets that monitor biodiversity changes over time).

Satellite imagery is now being used for a huge range of environmental monitoring, from detection of methane leaks to counting wildlife populations and detecting illegal mining. In a 2022 paper, Anna Schweiger, a remote sensing ecologist at Crowther Lab at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, found that imaging spectroscopy from satellite images can also now be used to monitor changes in plant community composition in close-to-real-time on a global level.

Lidar (light detection and ranging) is another remote technique that is being used to survey everything from water to biodiversity and the health of forests. It is an imaging method that uses a pulsed laser light to measure ranges to the Earth and can help make high-resolution maps.

“High-resolution lidar can provide information on vegetation height, canopy cover and the distribution of foliage throughout the canopy,” says Schweiger. This information can be especially useful for assessing carbon stocks in forested ecosystems, and scientists are working to improve predictions for grasslands and shrublands, she says. But it can also help characterise the diversity and intactness of plant communities, thus helping to quantify their provision of ecosystem services. “For the future of biodiversity monitoring, it would be fantastic to have a long-term lidar mission in space, because monitoring requires repeated data acquisition over the same areas at relatively short time intervals,” Schweiger adds.

Acoustic monitoring, which allows for remote observation of ecosystems based on sounds, is another tool used to record biodiversity before and after a specific intervention, such as a reforestation project. “You can tell a lot about biodiversity from the diversity of sounds, especially in tropical systems where there are many kinds of species,” says McDonald. “More ambitiously, people are running [these sounds] through machine-learning algorithms and then classifying the species that are there. A computer can listen to the audio signal and pull-out which bird species are there or which mammals.”

Australian green tech start-up AirSeed Technologies aims to use drones to plant 100 million trees by 2024

Image credit: AirSeed Technologies

Tree planting and forest restoration are seen as among the most effective ways to combat both climate change and biodiversity loss. Companies are increasingly using drone technology to help them cover vast swathes of land with trees and monitor these areas once planted.

Australian firm AirSeed (pictured above) aims to plant 100 million trees by 2024 in deforestation hotspots, using seed-firing drones and artificial intelligence, having first carried out ecological surveys to ensure that the right trees, shrubs and grasses are planted in degraded sites. “Our solution is approximately 25 times faster and 80 per cent more cost-effective than manual planting methods,” says Jonathan Dawe, AirSeed’s business director. “Planting trees at scale is vital to tackling the climate crisis and reaching net-zero emission targets.”

Wildfires are among the major climate threats that AirSeed is responding to. More than a fifth of Australia’s forests were destroyed by wildfires in 2019. “The effects of a changing climate underscore the need for more effective and innovative approaches to restoring vegetation,” says Dawe.

The drones are equipped with GPS trackers, enabling close monitoring of the sites after the seed pods have been planted. “This is one of the most critical steps in the restoration process,” says Dawe. The drones can plant up to 16 different species per flight, he adds, while the pods are soil-specific and contain microbial inputs to assist growth.

Another drone company focusing on land restoration is the UK-based Dendra Systems. Using a ‘swarm’ of 10 drones, it says it can plant up to 300,000 saplings a day in degraded habitats, compared to 2,000 that could be propagated using traditional planting methods. Companies can hire Dendra’s AI tool, which uses satellite images and data captured by the drones, to identify and map a specific ecosystem and come up with a plan to rehabilitate the area’s unique biodiversity.

The idea of putting a price on carbon is familiar by now. Many companies rely on buying and selling carbon offset credits to help them meet their long-term climate goals – although there are some serious caveats to the reliability of these credits to truly ‘offset’ other emissions.

There is now a growing push to ‘put a price on nature’ and create a similar marketplace for biodiversity, to drive investment into nature protection.

Estonian company Single Earth has developed a mechanism to reward landowners for preserving natural habitats, such as biodiverse forests, instead of cutting them down and selling the resources for profit. Single Earth creates Merit tokens for ecosystems of ecological significance, which companies can purchase in a digital marketplace and count them towards their long-term sustainability goals.

In the first phase, forest owners whose forests have remained intact for the past 20 years receive a token for every 100kg of CO2 stored there. “The tokens aren’t just a currency, they are also instruments that account for the ecosystem services of [a habitat],” says chief executive Merit Valdsalu. “The whole system is built on the idea that growing and protecting an existing ecosystem is a [financial] asset, which can provide landowners with an income if they don’t destroy it.”

Companies can boost their reputation and appeal to customers by investing in projects that preserve critical ecosystems and protect species, Valdsalu adds.

‘The number of businesses setting targets to be ‘nature positive’ is increasing, but nature still remains the poorer environmental cousin to climate change.’

Grant Rudgley, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Just as with carbon credits, there are some caveats to investing in biodiversity tokens. A major question is why landowners should be paid to not destroy their forests when it could be argued this is their job in the first place, and there are also questions over how long they can really guarantee this lack of destruction. There are also concerns about the use of blockchain, which can be highly energy-intensive, to enable the digital transactions. Single Earth says it uses blockchain to ensure transparency and integrity and that each sale uses comparable energy to a Visa card transaction. And offsets always raise the problematic question of why companies should be paying someone else to be ‘green’ for them, rather than cleaning up their own operations.

Many other nature-positive technologies are being developed, from new sources of protein which could help shift diets away from meat to innovations in agricultural production techniques which could reduce pesticide use, but experts warn against an over-reliance on these. “While [technologies to support biodiversity] will be valuable in pursuit of a nature-positive future, they will need to be deployed alongside efforts to change lifestyles and consumption patterns, not instead of them,” says Grant Rudgley, nature-related finance lead at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. There are also considerations around the traceability of technologies, he adds, plus the cost: organisations need to consider if they are the most effective use of capital.

We also need to be careful not to see the world solely through the lens of new technologies and approaches, says Rudgley. “Eighty per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is conserved by Indigenous peoples in their traditional territories. No transformation can successfully happen without considering local communities.”

Singapore Changi Airport’s green wall - inline

Image credit: Getty Images

Taking biodiversity loss seriously means more than investing in ‘pristine’ landscapes. For companies, it means better understanding all the ways they may be impacting nature, from supply chains and waste to factories and workspaces, as well as the wider influence they can have on policy.

“The number of businesses setting targets to be ‘nature positive’ is increasing,” says Rudgley, “but nature still remains the poorer environmental cousin to climate change.”

Sustainable office or factory design is one way companies can engage with biodiversity and become more nature-positive. Adding green infrastructure, such as green roofs, landscaped courtyards and ponds, can maximise biodiversity on site and provide important health and climate benefits by removing air pollutants and reducing urban air temperatures, according to the World Green Building Council. Installing bird boxes and feeders, allowing patches of wildflowers to grow and adding holes in fences to allow throughways for hedgehogs and other wildlife are other measures which can support biodiversity in any space.

“One of the key things wildlife needs is ways to move safely around urban areas and this requires connectivity of habitats,” says Stephen Richardson, Europe director of the World Green Building Council. “So ensuring your site is part of connecting and expanding existing wildlife corridors is one important aspect to consider.”

Technology is an important ‘enabler’ that can help make offices more biodiverse spaces, says Richardson. Irrigation for green facades or automated controls to prevent light pollution are examples. But he warns that technology should never be considered a replacement for expert guidance and for a plan that addresses the specific situation. “This is important because biodiversity is so locally specific.”
Noise and light pollution are often overlooked, he says. “It’s not enough to provide habitat; you need to ensure that the rest of your building is not polluting that habitat with noise and light that would make it unsuitable for animals.”

Of course for many companies their biggest impact on ecosystems could be far down their value chain. In some sectors – such as fashion – companies know remarkly little about where their materials actually come from. But scrutiny on this is rising, and regulator crackdowns on greenwashing are also ramping up across the world.

“To safeguard operations and build more resilient supply chains, businesses need to understand the longer-term, nature-related operational and financial risks that may result from their decisions – including the regulatory environments they operate in,” says Rudgley. “This will also create the mindset shift required to respond to the age-old question of ‘what is the business case?’ for investing in nature. Fundamentally, we need to re-evaluate how we think about the economic value of nature, considering a broader context of values and dividends that are not purely financial.”

Of course even whole value chains don’t exist in a silo, and the final step for companies active on biodiversity is a wider engagement with moves for policy or regulations on biodiversity. It could also mean reconsidering affiliations with industry groups.

In a report published last year, climate thinktank InfluenceMap surveyed 12 industry associations representing key biodiversity-related sectors in Europe and the US and found that many are lobbying to delay, dilute and roll back policy aimed at preventing and reversing biodiversity loss.

“What we found was the industry associations were pretty actively lobbying on these policies and generally quite oppositional to policy,” says Rebecca Vaughan, programme manager for sustainable finance and biodiversity policy at InfluenceMap. “We often see industry associations taking much more aggressive positions than we would see from companies themselves.”

Vaughan suggests that companies concerned about the views of any industry groups they are part of could form working groups within these bodies to move their positions. If that proves fruitless, they may choose to leave the organisation. “And that can also be quite a powerful message, and it clearly weakens the influence of the association if that’s happening,” she says.

Biodiversity loss may be seen as climate change’s poorer sister, but ultimately many of the issues overlap. “Climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically linked,” says Rowe. “You cannot stop one without stopping the other.”

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