Managing biodiversity risks and opportunities

30th September 2015


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Richard Campen and Alex Saponja argue that a new standard is good news for the natural environment

Given that biodiversity supports the vital benefits we derive from the natural environment, a new BSI standard on this is timely, particularly in the context of recent, less encouraging announcements.

Reports of falling wild bird populations and a continuing decrease in already-threatened animal species and plants serve only to support Defra's declaration in 2011 that 30% of the services we secure from the UK's ecosystems are in decline.

Introducing BS 8583

BSI hopes that the new standard will help to reverse this seemingly unremitting tide of bad news. BS 8583 - biodiversity: guidance for businesses on managing the risks and opportunities is a tool that a business can use to manage premises, supply chains and day-to-day operations in ways that are mutually beneficial to biodiversity and the organisation itself. In addressing the specific problem of biodiversity and ecological conservation, society also has to deal with the global financial crisis and its impacts nationally. The conventional approach is to see economic growth as more important than managing habitats and wildlife. In this context, expenditure on UK biodiversity declined between 2007 and 2013.

Any discussion about biodiversity, the economy and meeting the needs of people is in essence about sustainability. The Brundtland Report (1987) defined sustainable development as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This definition puts people at the centre of sustainable development and, when creating a framework for sustainability, we tend to aim to address the three pillars of people, economy and environment. These are usually represented as three overlapping ellipses, with sustainability at the centre.

Cajoling small businesses to use BS 8583 may require demonstrating its benefits and helping them understand what actions will be required

In her 2009 book Green economics, academic and Green MEP Molly Scott Cato took this model and put society in the ellipse of environment and economy in the ellipse of society. This particular approach helps reinforce the fact that there are environmental limits, and without the environment there would be no functioning society. With the term "limits" comes the concept of risk, which is included in the title of 8583.

In light of the above, it could be argued that most environmental problems are social ones. So the loss of biodiversity is as much a social problem as an intrinsic one. At the extreme, there would be no environmental problems if humans were not here to perceive them. However, people are part of nature so the issues of resource exploitation, species extinction and habitat losses are all connected to human activities and wellbeing.

Evidence is growing that exposure to the natural environment can produce mental health benefits. It follows that a thriving natural environment and access to it have knock-on benefits for the health system and the economy - hence the importance of involving the business community.

Corporate response

Many large businesses and corporations address sustainability and biodiversity through environment management systems and specific programmes. Utility companies might embark on water catchment management programmes, for instance.

Some organisations produce corporate social responsibility reports detailing their activities. However, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, in 2014 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) accounted for 99.9% of the 4.9 million private sector businesses in the UK and employed 24.3 million people. But SMEs are less likely to be engaged in sustainability because they lack the economies of scale that large businesses can exploit.

The 8583 guidance standard is a response to this disparity and is intended to give business of all sizes and types the means to understand biodiversity in clear, easy steps. Its use would be particularly beneficial if current strategies and action plans do not exist or lack traction. Using a simple flow chart, businesses are given the means to understand biodiversity in the context of their own sector and organisation, with the expected outcome that action is taken to enhance the natural resources on which they rely.

By making the small changes and taking the steps highlighted in the guidance, businesses can follow a route of maturation that goes beyond what is specified and apply ecosystem service and natural capital principles. An example of such a step is Puma's environmental profit and loss (EP&L) balance sheet. It revealed the true costs to the sportswear business of its use of, and impact on, the natural environment, and helped it to better understand risk and identify where to coordinate its sustainability effort. Although EP&L controversially puts a cost value on environmental impacts, it does highlight how much the business depends on the natural world. The Corporate Natural Capital Accounting (CNCA) framework, which and is reported on pp.26-28 of this issue, also helps organisations account for their natural capital.

A guide to action

BS 8583 is for guidance only, and its success will be contingent on take-up. Those responsible for business operations, especially in SMEs, are often under pressure in terms of time and resources. Although the standard aims to provide some support with concepts and theory relating to biodiversity, in some instances inputs from an ecologist or environmentalist may be required. So cajoling small businesses in particular to use 8583 may require demonstrating its benefits and helping them to understand what specific actions might be involved and what they might cost.

If 8583 is adopted by a large number of SMEs, it could be an important sustainability tool. The standard could provide the basis for nature or biodiversity management plans, and would dovetail smoothly to support corporate social responsibility reporting and sustainability strategies. In future, 8583 could be used to support the revised ISO 14001 standard, helping an organisation to better understand its context, and risks and opportunities - both clauses in the revised international standard for environment management systems.

BS 8583 - the benefits

The standard:

  • Explains what biodiversity is and why it is relevant to businesses and other organisations.
  • Describes how to assess biodiversity impact.
  • Explores ways to manage biodiversity, for example through supply-chain and land management.
  • Provides advice on planning for biodiversity protection and enhancement.


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