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Can we bring nature back from the brink?

CDSB's Senior Technical Officer, David Astley, looks at the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

When I saw a friend that had recently returned from visiting family in northern India, the first thing they mentioned was the eerie quiet of the countryside – the birdsong they remembered from childhood visits had gone. When they looked up, no birds circled the clear blue skies. Their family attributed the change to the intensive practices of local farmers, which had severely disturbed the local food chains and, resultingly, the birds, whether large or small. 

There are stories and anecdotes like this across the world, each of which connects to a larger narrative and truth set out by the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

Whether you are engaged in the environmental movement or not, the IPBES report makes for harrowing reading by detailing the reality of nature’s dangerous decline: 

  • Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades unless action is taken to reduce biodiversity loss. This projected extinction rate is at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged across the last 10 million years; 
  • 75% of the land surface has been significantly altered by multiple human drivers, with over 85% of wetland area already lost; and 
  • Land degradation has reduced productivity in 23% of the global terrestrial area. Between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop out is at risk because of pollinator loss.  

And those are just three of seemingly countless stats that the authors use to outline that state of the crisis. 

Drivers of change 

The report sets out five key drivers of change:  

  • changes in land and sea use; 
  • direct exploitation of organisms; 
  • climate change;
  • pollution; and 
  • invasive alien species. 

These key drivers are underpinned by societal values and behaviours such as production and consumption patterns, human population dynamics and trends, and international trade. As the report notes that in the past 50 or so years, ‘the human population has doubled, the global economy has grown nearly 4-fold and global trade has grown 10-fold.’ These forces have set unprecedented stresses on ecosystems around the world, while ‘[e]conomic incentives generally have favoured expanding economic activity, and often environmental harm, over conservation or restoration.’ 

Global Assessment Animation from GlobalGoalsUN on Vimeo.

In particular, the IPBES report emphasises the connections between climate change and the biodiversity and ecosystem crises. It is, after all, similar underlying socio-economic factors that are driving these troubling developments.  

These ecological and climate systems are deeply entwined, with each feeding into the other with compounding effects. For example, climate change is a direct driver of biodiversity and ecosystem loss, and, at the same time, the devastation of biodiversity increases vulnerability to the effects of climate change. As Robert Watson, the chair of IPBES and former chair of IPCC, put it in a recent op-ed: ‘We cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”  

Accelerating transformation through integrated thinking   

The report sees that only transformative change across economic, social, political and technological factors will allow us to meet our goals of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems and sustainably using nature. Such a course of action is also essential for achieving a host of the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, with ‘current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems [undermining] progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of goals related to poverty, health, water cities, climate, oceans and land.’ 

To tackle these crises, we need to think and act in a more holistic way. For companies, this means thinking about the effects their operations and strategies have on ecosystems and, also, the effects those ecosystems have on their business. They need to also think, act and report in a manner that takes account of complex and dynamic environmental interconnections. We often talk about the business impediment of silos, perhaps we need to talk about breaking down the silos that exist in corporate environmental action and reporting? Companies need to guarantee that one set of environmental goals are not in conflict or act as an impediment to other goals, and, instead, ensure that all their environmental ambitions are coherent, integrated and complementary.  

The CDSB Framework encourages such integrated thinking and disclosure. We expanded our original remit of climate change to all environmental issues understanding that topics such as resource sourcing and use, pollution, land use, biodiversity and climate change could not be separated, but needed to be thought about and acted upon as a whole. By emphasising the importance of interconnection and future-focus, encouraging the use of scenario analysis, and zooming into the most relevant and material issues, the CDSB Framework provides companies with the tool to drill into the complexities of our environmental situation and report their strategies, ambitions and targets effectively to the market. 

That said, we know there is always more assistance and guidance that CDSB can be offering to companies to ensure clear, comprehensive and comparable disclosures. This is especially true for those issues with the strongest compounding effects for societies and environments around the world, such as climate change, biodiversity, land use and water. In the upcoming years we will be doubling our efforts on helping companies in Europe and globally to bring the information they provide on their dependencies and impacts to a level of rigour that is commensurate to the scale of this issue. Just recently, our Managing Director, Mardi McBrien participated on the BrightTalk webinar Natural Capital, Species Extinction & Sustainable Finance - The Impact of SDGs with representatives from the Natural Capital Coalition, UNPRI, WWF, IIRC and the University of Sheffield. Listen to the webinar.

Written by David Astley, Senior Technical Officer at CDSB.