Does biodiversity matter to business?

For too long, companies around the world have taken for granted the ecosystems on which production and consumption are based. And though some corporate leaders have begun to factor biodiversity into their financial assessments and overall business models, many more need to follow suit.

biodiversity in forest
A lizard in a forest. As a result of human activities, planetary biodiversity is now declining faster than at any point in history. Image: Pixabay

 At the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos last month, the evidence of mounting threats to nature, and of nature’s contributions to people, featured higher on the agenda than ever before. The task for business leaders around the world is to embrace this evidence and start acting as stewards, rather than spoilers, of our vital natural assets.

The latest edition of the WEF’s Global Risks Report is correct in concluding that, “Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.” But PwC’s latest annual CEO survey, also released at Davos, reveals that business leaders no longer include environmental concerns in their top-ten threats to corporate growth.

Such findings reflect an inexcusable myopia on the part of business leaders. The loss of biodiversity—stemming from the destruction of individual species, entire ecosystems, and even genetic resources—is not just an environmental issue; it is also a threat to global development, security, and economic prosperity. Products ranging from coffee to cotton rely on strong, functioning ecosystems and a minimal level of biodiversity. Without a healthy environment, forced migrations, conflicts over resources, and a range of other direct and indirect disruptions to global trade and commerce become more likely.

According to one estimate cited in this year’s Global Risks Report, the annual value of nature’s contributions to people—in the form of food, water purification, pollination, protection against floods, and so forth—is $125 trillion, or is roughly two-thirds more than global GDP. Hence, the WEF concludes that biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are both more likely and potentially more damaging to business than most other global threats.

Fortunately, last November, prior to the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP14), participants in the Business and Biodiversity Forum recognised the “urgent need for increased collective ambition to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.”

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are both more likely and potentially more damaging to business than most other global threats.

To that end, a growing number of firms have committed to such collective action. Many, for example, have signed onto the global Business and Biodiversity Pledge that was introduced at the CBD gathering in Mexico in 2016. And last July, companies meeting in France detailed concrete steps they are taking to safeguard biodiversity as part of the Act4Nature initiative.

By integrating biodiversity concerns into their global growth strategies, and by supporting targets set by the international community, these businesses are helping to lay the groundwork for a major summit in Beijing next year. The delegates who gather for CBD COP15 will decide on global biodiversity targets for the next decade.

Biodiversity pledges by businesses vary. For its part, AXA Insurance Company is developing new ways to account for biodiversity loss in its assessments of financial risk. This, in turn, will help to channel investments toward projects that maintain or reinforce ecosystems. Meanwhile, the French cosmetics company L’Oréal has pledged that, by 2020, none of its products will include ingredients linked to deforestation.

For others seeking to incorporate biodiversity considerations into their decision-making, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ latestregional assessment reports offer a range of evidence-based policy options. And at its next plenary session this coming May, IPBES will release the first global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services since the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. The new report will place a much stronger emphasis on the role that all decision-makers, including those in businesses, have to play in safeguarding biodiversity.

The scientific and expert evidence is unequivocal: human activities are changing Earth’s climate and destroying the natural resources and ecosystems on which we all rely. Businesses, governments, and members of civil society—including indigenous peoples and local communities—all have a duty to reduce and reverse this damage.

But while we all need to work together, the private sector, in particular, must redouble its efforts to protect natural systems and shape the future we want. That will require business leaders with a vision that extends beyond quarterly earnings.

Around the world, customers are becoming increasingly concerned about the wider consequences of production and consumption. By recognising that business as usual can no longer continue, corporate leaders can usher in a future that is better both for their bottom lines and for our shared natural world.

Robert Watson is Chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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