Biodiversity - the whole picture

11th December 2020

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Julian Rose

We must be prepared to embrace complexity and note the interconnectedness of sustainability issues, argues Stephanie Wray

I have spent most of my career trying to simplify biodiversity for people. I was wrong – not about impressing on businesses the importance of biodiversity to their survival, but in trying to rationalise it onto a PowerPoint slide. Despite my carefully honed bullets, businesses often missed the point.

As scientists, we're told we need to be accessible, and advance public understanding of our work. Humans crave the direct, not the nuanced; the label, not the portfolio of choices the label represents. Sometimes, however, we need complexity. Biodiversity is the set of messy and beautiful interactions that exists between everything on the planet. When we try to assess the sustainability of our actions, it's to biodiversity that we should look.

A single figure

Carbon is the currency of sustainability. While it does not explain all interactions between organisms and their environment, it is a relatively simple input-output calculation, giving a single number that begs to be turned into a key performance indicator.

Life doesn't reduce to a single number, though. Say you're a furniture company that imports timber from Indonesia and you plant trees in the Scottish Highlands to offset your carbon. If you plant enough, you can balance your carbon equation – but are you sustainable? Hardly. By focusing only on carbon, you risk ignoring other important issues. The trees felled in Indonesia may have provided habitat for rare species, or supported pollinators for economically important crops. They might have slowed rainfall and prevented soil erosion. Unless we look through the lens of biodiversity and ecosystem services, we cannot understand if our actions are sustainable – but in a world that values the simple, we believe a balanced carbon budget represents success.

The bigger picture

Corporate responsibility reports don't just mention carbon; they talk about social issues, water, plastics and a range of other things. The problem is that we talk about each in isolation. Until we accept the interconnectedness of the issues, we can't fully understand them or be sure we are paying attention to the critical, rather than the fashionable.

Consider the ancient Indian tale of the blind men introduced to an elephant. Each man conceptualises the animal based on the part he can feel, declaring it a wall, a tree or a hose depending on whether he touched its side, leg or trunk. They all believe their senses and think the others are dishonest, but none has the information needed to understand what makes a whole elephant. When we pick off individual dimensions of sustainability and expect to tackle them in isolation, we're only touching part of the elephant. We need to take a step back and see the whole picture.

For years, our industry has been on a quest for a simple, numerical, all-encompassing biodiversity metric. There are lots of approaches to this (see box). But if we want to understand our impacts on biodiversity, we need to consider a whole range of things, including land use change, pollution, climate change, invasive species and overharvesting of species. The issues can be nuanced and subtle. To summarise this in one number is not a helpful reflection of the real world, and won't be useful in defining actions. What we must do is embrace complexity and devise proxies that help us understand it.

Embracing complexity

If we are to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, we need to use systems thinking in order to understand interrelationships, perspectives and boundaries. As policies alter in response to the UN's Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, we will need to make changes in the way we do business. We're seeing a rise in corporate commitments through science-based targets and the Task Force for Nature-related Financial Disclosures, but the plethora of available tools alone won't help to keep these promises; a paradigm shift is needed. Rather than hide behind the blanket word 'biodiversity', we need to unpack it (Figure 1).

A word of caution: being able to identify, measure or monetise different aspects of the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity doesn't mean they are fungible. Environmental net gain is a form of multicriteria analysis, and we need to get all the numbers into the green zone.

When we embrace complexity and focus on the whole system, biodiversity functions as sustainability's organising principle. If you want to know if your undertaking is sustainable, ask: does it deliver a genuine net positive outcome for nature? If so, the other dimensions of sustainability will fall into place.

A selection of biodiversity tools

Biological Diversity Protocol:

A tool for assessing current performance, tracking target progress, third-party certification and biodiversity accounting at the site, supply chain and corporate levels

The Biodiversity Footprint for Financial Institutions seeks to calculate the biodiversity footprint of the economic activities in which a financial institution invests Biodiversity Impact Metric:

An assessment of current performance and a comparison of options at the supply chain and corporate levels

Biodiversity Indicators for Site-based Impacts: An assessment of performance from site to corporate level, providing insights into biodiversity performance on the ground Defra Biodiversity Metric: A tool to assess site-based impacts on habitats as a proxy for biodiversity

Environmental Profit and Loss Account: A tool to quantify the use of natural resources financially

Species Threat Abatement and Recovery Metric (STAR): A means of measuring the contribution of investments to global biodiversity targets

Stephanie Wray is managing director at Nature Positive.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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