Biodiversity and the bottom line

10th February 2013

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  • Ecosystems ,
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Environment management systems provide an ideal starting point to better understand biodiversity and its impact on profitability, argues Matthew Walker

ISO 14001, EMAS and BS 8555 certified environment management systems (EMSs) have had a major impact on improving the natural environment through a reduction in carbon emissions, pollution and water use. Firms now need to consider the benefits of assessing and improving their biodiversity footprints using similar methods.

The structured processes of an EMS provide the ideal mechanism to measure and improve an organisation’s impact on native species. As well as benefiting the natural environment, there are sound business reasons for taking this approach, including: better risk assessment, increased marketing opportunities and cost-effective methods of mitigating against climate change.

There are established tools to help businesses in their initial biodiversity assessment. The use of differing scopes in the Carbon Trust framework, for example, could easily be adapted to assess a firm’s biodiversity footprint.

Risk management is a key driver for any EMS, but few organisations include the biodiversity of their land in this process. This exposes them to the possibility of costly delays to future developments if legally-protected wildlife habitats are found on the land.

Another potential issue could be a protected species moving into stock or storage areas, in which case measures would need to be taken to safely transfer the animals to a new habitat in line with legal requirements.

On the other side of the coin, the possibility of attracting protected species should not prevent a company from enhancing its land to increase biodiversity, or to protect and create wildlife habitats. Wild species will migrate to any suitable land, and where habitats are regularly managed the owner will be aware of any species likely to be found there and any associated legal requirements if a change of land use is proposed.

Drivers for change

The idea of a biodiversity footprint has yet to take root in mainstream culture, but the outcomes of the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity (TEEB) study are likely to kick-start the discussion. TEEB highlights the global financial benefits of biodiversity and the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

One example is the impact of a decline in bee populations. Bees are vital to pollinate fruit and vegetables, so any reduction in their number means these products become harder to grow, leading to rising prices. This has an obvious effect on food-related businesses, but also on the wider economy as higher food prices reduce consumer spending power.

The UK government stated its commitment to improving biodiversity in its natural environment white paper (NEWP). The NEWP indicates that the government places both a social and economic value on biodiversity and high-quality green spaces.

There is a possibility that the NEWP could be followed up with legislation or financial incentives to preserve biodiversity. If so, organisations with biodiversity plans in place will be able to meet requirements quicker and cheaper than those without. The situation may be similar to that created by the carbon reduction commitment energy efficiency scheme, where organisations that installed automatic meter readers before the deadline achieved a high ranking in the initial performance league table, enhancing their reputation.

Another driving force is likely to be public opinion. As the message spreads about the need to halt species decline, consumers may throw their support behind firms with a good record on biodiversity and shun those with poor reputations. The power of passionate individuals to coordinate online campaigns means businesses need to be increasingly careful about their public image.

A proactive approach to managing biodiversity also offers opportunities to improve the wellbeing of staff, with the potential benefits of increased productivity and fewer sick days. Research has shown that health and wellbeing rises when people have regular access to the natural environment, and a wildlife-rich area close to the workplace is likely to become a popular place to spend breaks. There may also be an opportunity to increase team building and employee engagement by asking for volunteers to assist with its maintenance.

Another advantage of embracing biodiversity is cost-effective solutions to tackling an organisation’s environmental impacts. Planting trees near a manufacturing facility can, for example, help to reduce the noise or air pollution created by production processes, because they muffle sounds and trap dust.

This sort of approach can also protect against the effects of climate change, such as flooding. Take, for example, a project at Sheffield Forgemasters, a manufacturer of forgings and castings based in South Yorkshire. In 2007, flooding devastated parts of its 26-hectare site. The company subsequently created a 0.4 hectare wildlife area at its heart, which has reduced the flood risk for the production facilities and boosted employee satisfaction – both tangible business benefits likely to improve the bottom line.

Landscape designers worked with Wrap, the local authority planning department and the Environment Agency to tackle issues around sustainability, biodiversity, contamination and flooding. At the same time, they maximised the site’s ecological potential to develop a range of habitats, including woodland, wetland and meadow.

Sustainable techniques were employed, including collecting rainfall runoff from a nearby car park in the wetland area. More than 600m2 of native trees and shrubs were planted, along with more exotic varieties to enhance the aesthetics of the area for staff and visitors and encourage more wildlife.

The garden is widely used by employees, who have taken ownership of the project, helping with pond clearance and plantings. A land management team provides ongoing support and advice to the volunteers and maintenance staff to ensure invasive species are removed and habitat areas are continually enhanced.

The bigger picture

In response to the publication of the NEWP, local nature partnerships (LNP) are being established across the UK. These form part of the government’s integrated approach to managing the natural environment. One of their aims is to increase the amount of land managed for the benefit of wildlife, creating habitat corridors across wide areas.

As well as the LNPs, the first 12 nature improvement areas have been set up to drive forward the policy in specific regions. These voluntary partnerships provide an ideal opportunity for businesses to play a role in enhancing ecosystems.

As both the government and the public begin to assess the value of natural capital, companies should consider the benefits achieved from the biodiversity of their land.

Organisations that take the initiative on biodiversity are likely to establish a competitive edge over the coming decade. EMSs and standard assessment tools are already in place and provide the ideal starting point to assess and improve biodiversity, and your firm’s bottom line.

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