COP15: Whose business is nature anyway?

Private sector interest in protecting biodiversity has rocketed in the past couple of years, but is not being welcomed by everyone at the UN biodiversity talks.

The most recent assessment by the UN Environment Programme estimates that investments into protecting and better managing nature need to more than double from current levels, to US$384 billion per year by 2025. Image: UN Biodiversity, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Public finance has been slow to come to the table at negotiations for a new deal on nature under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The issue is a key sticking point in the COP15 negotiations, which are ongoing in Montreal, Canada, with scant progress made during several rounds of technical talks in the lead-up to the final discussions.

The financing gap is huge. The most recent assessment by the UN Environment Programme estimates that investments into protecting and better managing nature need to more than double from current levels, to US$384 billion per year by 2025.

Pledges made so far include a 1.5 billion yuan ($233 million) fund for biodiversity protection in developing countries announced by China’s President Xi Jinping during the first part of COP15, which was held in October 2021 both in Kunming, China and online.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the second part of COP15 in Montreal with a pledge to grant CAN$800 million (US$590 million) to indigenous-led nature conservation in Canada over seven years, starting in 2023–24.

At the half-way point of the Montreal talks, the finance issue was blocking progress across the board. Several developing countries were refusing to agree any of the targets under discussion until questions over finance are resolved.

The European Union, which claims to be the largest donor to international biodiversity financing, last year committed to double its contribution to 7 billion euros (US$7.4 billion) for 2021–2027.

But overseas development aid will never be enough to fill the finance gap, according to Florika Fink-Hooijer, the European Commission’s director general for environment, speaking at a COP15 press conference. All sources of finance were needed, not just public, she said.

The CBD has been very clear that the global biodiversity framework is a framework for all, and business and finance are going to be one of the key actors to implement it, so it would be backwards now to exclude us.

Zabey, executive director, Business for Nature

“The private sector has a lot of potential to pay for biodiversity – half of global GDP relies on nature,” she said.

Private capital represents only 17 per cent of total investments in nature, according to UNEP’s assessments, which called on the private sector to raise its stake by “several orders of magnitude” in the coming years to achieve both nature and climate targets.

‘Unprecedented representation’

Business interest in biodiversity is rising rapidly although it’s still nowhere near that seen for climate change. At COP15, there are around 1,000 corporate representatives out of 21,000 accredited people, according to the CBD press office. This is far higher than any previous biodiversity COP and includes people from sectors such as finance, tourism and cement production.

“It’s unprecedented representation from business,” said Eva Zabey, executive director of the coalition Business for Nature. “Around 90 per cent of businesses here have never been to a biodiversity COP before.”

Multiple business initiatives have been launched at or around COP15. These include an “accountability accelerator” by the Global Commons Alliance, aimed at closing potential loopholes in corporate commitments to protect and restore nature.

The alliance wants to be “one step ahead” of companies seeking to establish the concept of “nature positive” as the biodiversity equivalent of climate’s “net zero”. It will attempt this by ensuring company commitments are science-based and backed by adequate resources. It also wants to help inform those groups pressuring companies to change.

Separately, the World Benchmarking Alliance launched a “nature benchmark”, assessing 400 of the world’s most influential companies in terms of their progress on nature protection and restoration. Research by the alliance found that only 5 per cent of companies have carried out a science-based assessment of how their operations and business models impact nature and biodiversity, far below the 50 per cent which had done the same for climate.

The nature benchmark also found companies had poor disclosure of whether their business operations were located at or near high priority areas for biodiversity, and few had commitments to respect the rights of indigenous peoples. The highest scoring company achieved just 55 out of 100 across governance, biodiversity and social impact, it found.

The alliance said that some of the highest-scoring companies in its rankings were those whose behaviour had come under significant public scrutiny for previous scandals. For example, Brazilian mining company Vale came fourth in the benchmark. Vale is the owner of two tailings dams that collapsed in separate incidents in Brazil, killing hundreds of people and polluting rivers with mining waste.

The second and more severe of these disasters, at Brumadinho in 2019, was “a tipping point” for the company, according to Malu Paiva, executive vice president of sustainability for Vale. Speaking at a COP15 side event, she said she had hesitated to join the company 18 months ago. “Sitting here is not easy, we know the past, but it’s a new moment for the company,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), whose framework is widely used by businesses globally to report on climate change, has proposed an update to its 2016 biodiversity standard.

Draft changes include reporting throughout the supply chain; disclosures on the drivers of biodiversity loss, such as pollution and resource overexploitation; biodiversity human rights impacts, such as effects on indigenous peoples and workers; and an emphasis on location-specific data to ensure businesses are transparent about the sites where they impact biodiversity.

Mandatory disclosure

In fact, many businesses attending COP15 are pushing for mandatory reporting of risks, dependencies and impacts for the private sector. This obligation is proposed in target 15 of the global biodiversity framework (GBF) being negotiated in Montreal.

Prior to COP15, more than 330 business and finance institutions, including Aviva Investors, BNP Paribas, Danone, Nestlé, Rabobank, Roche, Tata Steel and Unilever, sent a letter to governments calling for them to adopt mandatory requirements on nature by 2030. According to an October survey of corporations around the world by consultants at KPMG, only around 40 per cent of 5,800 companies currently report on biodiversity.

Many major conservation groups such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy are supportive of, and are working with, businesses at the negotiations, as well as collaborating on nature restoration projects on the ground. However, there has been significant pushback from others, such as Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), and representatives of indigenous peoples.

In a highly critical report, FoEI accused businesses of a “corporate capture” of the CBD process. Addressing the real drivers of biodiversity loss would damage the economic interests of most businesses, the organisation argues. “They make sure they are present to demonstrate their goodwill to cooperate – but on their own terms. In this way, they avoid the imposition of measures that are inconvenient or that would affect their economic interests,” the report states.

FoEI cites offsetting, self-certification, self-regulation and nature-based solutions as examples of “alternative” measures that give an impression of action while assuring corporates that they do not have to shrink their businesses or profits. The concept of “nature positive” being pushed at COP15 was greenwash, allowing businesses to offset biodiversity damage by improving biodiversity elsewhere, it said.

Speaking at a press conference, Samuel Gilbert, program coordinator at FoEI, dismissed the business campaign to make reporting mandatory. “It focuses on one process – reporting. It’s very narrow. When corporations lead the process on what they want to disclose, we need to be very sceptical,” he said.  

Nele Marien, FoEI’s international programme coordinator on forests and biodiversity, added: “For most companies, their main aim is to make profit. Their mandate is not to save biodiversity.”

While acknowledging that some companies performed better than others, Marien said that reporting would not reduce destruction of the environment or human rights abuses. “The main type of reporting they want to make mandatory is the risk to business. But the point of the convention [on biological diversity] is to save biodiversity, not to save business,” she said.

Target 15 of the draft global biodiversity framework (GBF) contained a proposal that businesses should take legal responsibility for infractions, including through penalties and redress for damage. However, negotiators have now removed this by unanimous agreement. 

report published by Business for Nature, the Capitals Coalition and CDP, a business disclosure organisation, which are behind the Make it Mandatory campaign, includes an enforcement mechanism and measures against non-compliance in a list of recommendations to governments.

Enforcement is not mentioned in the letter from businesses, though a spokeswoman for Business for Nature said that should mandatory assessment and disclosure be agreed at a global level, countries at a national level will have to define what this looks like, including any enforcement mechanisms.

Similarly, Simon Counsell, advisor to Survival International, which campaigns for human rights of indigenous people, wrote in a blog that “nature positive” was not a science-based aim, unlike the climate change target of keeping global average temperature to within 1.5C of the pre-industrial level.

“It pitches the GBF into the realm of subjectivity, uncertainty and potential abuse… It begs many questions as to whose nature is being referred to, and what it means in terms of genetic diversity, endangered species, endangered populations and ecosystems,” he wrote.

Nature-based solutions

Scepticism about business involvement at COP15 is also tangible in the negotiations. The concept of “nature-based solutions” emphasises the links between projects that could restore nature, mitigate and adapt to climate change, and support the livelihoods of local people. It has gained traction in recent years in climate negotiations and other international fora. However, some parties to the CBD oppose it, seeing it as an endorsement of offsetting by businesses.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global leader on climate and energy at WWF and former Peruvian environment minister, expressed frustration with this claim at a COP15 press conference. “There is still opposition from seven or eight countries about having nature-based solutions as part of the deal in Montreal.

“It is not true that nature-based solutions is market-based or a mechanism for offsetting, it has never been that. It is not true that it doesn’t include human rights – both resolutions in which it has been adopted include rights,” he said.

“He noted that all countries negotiating at CBD COP15 had already agreed to nature-based solutions at three other UN COPs held earlier this year, on climate, desertification, and wetlands, as well as at the UN Environment Assembly.”

“The CBD is the only convention that has not recognised nature-based solutions yet. If it doesn’t, it will be a big loss to the CBD – it is the CBD and the GBF that can define what it means, so if they do not, some other organisation will do so,” he said.

Nature positive

Similarly, Business for Nature’s Zabey defended the term “nature positive”, saying that it meant first reducing negative impacts before increasing positive impacts by 2030. She acknowledged that businesses would find it hard to make claims about being nature positive at the moment because that would require “transformative change across value chains”.

She defended the campaign for mandatory reporting. “CDP data shows that companies that disclose take more action. But we need more information; right now we’re flying blind,” she said.

Magali Anderson, chief sustainability and innovation officer at cement producer Holcim, said it had been reporting on nature for several years. “It really shows where your impact is, and so where your priorities should go.”

Holcim’s biggest impact was its 900 quarries, she said. It had worked with experts to assess how to rehabilitate its quarries progressively rather than wait for the completion of mining operations. In Spain, it had brought back an orchid that had not been present in the area for 20 years, she said. “Reporting has really pushed us, instead of just planting trees and saying that the rehabilitation has been done,’” she said.

Zabey reports that many negotiators were pleased to see business support at COP15. She acknowledged that businesses needed to build trust with all stakeholders, adding: “We need pushback and to be held accountable.”

However, she cautioned that businesses should not be “bundled in one group”.

“I would encourage dialogue and understanding of how these companies could use their influence in a positive way. The CBD has been very clear that the global biodiversity framework is a framework for all, and business and finance are going to be one of the key actors to implement it, so it would be backwards now to exclude us,” she said.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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