The first part of the United Nations “Biodiversity COP” (officially called CBD COP 15) kicked off this week, after being delayed for a year due to Covid-19. This international gathering is less well-known than its upcoming climate-focused sister conference (COP 26), but one could argue that even more is at stake.
Extinction is threatening up to one million plant and animal species – many within decades – and agriculture is the leading driver. While large parts of the world have woken up to the climate crisis in the past few years and have (too slowly) started responding to it, climate concerns have pushed biodiversity loss and nature degradation to the backseat.
Yet the reality is that these two crises can only be overcome when tackled hand-in-hand. Healthy ecosystems are required to regulate the climate and serve as the foundation of all life on earth – including that of businesses. This is especially true for the food and agriculture industry which directly depends on ecosystem services such as rain, pollination and soil fertility.
Let’s take a look at how companies are showing up for biodiversity at COP 15.
Businesses demand an ambitious nature-positive agenda
A growing number of corporate leaders are building a bigger umbrella for their sustainability programs, adding nature-positive goals to their net-zero commitments. Some of them are showing up collaboratively as the “Business for Nature” coalition and have published a rather unusual open letter to Heads of State to frame the opening of COP 15.
The letter itself is only signed by twelve business leaders, including those of Unilever, Rabobank and H&M, but the coalition represents over 1,000 businesses with revenues of $4.7 trillion and employing more than 11.2 million people. Interestingly, most of the signatories represent businesses with very close ties to nature in the agriculture and forestry sectors. Many of them are headquartered in emerging countries such as Brazil, India and Indonesia that are experiencing staggering rates of biodiversity loss.
The letter’s signatory CEOs state that they “recognize [their] responsibility to reject a “business as usual” mindset and to transform [their] business models in order to operate within planetary boundaries.” They claim that the Global Biodiversity Framework, which is expected to be the main outcome of the conference (similar to the Paris Agreement), lacks ambition and specificity. The CEOs challenge governments to adopt the goal of “reversing nature loss by 2030.”
The letter further states that businesses will only be able to adopt nature-positive practices if governments set better market conditions by:
- Embedding the value of nature in decision-making and disclosure
- Eliminating and redirecting all harmful subsidies
- Aligning all financial flows towards a nature-positive world
- Ensuring production and consumption footprints are within ecological thresholds.
While I agree that policy action on these four areas is urgently needed, I was surprised to see businesses make such demands of governments.
A new economic imperative for nature
I found it quite brazen for businesses to put the burden of action on governments, given that corporate lobbying has been a major barrier to tighter environmental regulation over the past decades. Claiming that government action was a pre-condition for moving away from “business as usual” seemed like a convenient out for these CEOs.
But this isn’t the coalition’s intention. In a recent GreenBiz interview, Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, clarified the group’s engagement in the Biodiversity COP:
“I think what governments need to hear is the economic imperative, that every financial bottom line depends on the planet’s health. The reality is, there are no healthy people on an unhealthy planet. If companies are stepping up, saying, “We realize that our business is not going to be functioning properly if we don’t look after the foundation of biodiversity and our natural resources,” that could be a strong message from businesses.”
So the CEO’s are trying to convey to governments that the business paradigm has changed. The private sector would now welcome and uplift environmental policy rather than meet it with backlash.
Businesses must stop harmful lobbying
This could lead to an important shift but only if businesses back up their words with action. Taking the reaction of major U.S. companies to the Democrat’s reconciliation package — likely the country’s best shot at meaningful climate mitigation — as an indicator raises severe concerns.
Recent investigations show that even companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, which are often perceived as sustainability leaders, are blocking the bill. Money is of course the motivator. Democrats are proposing to increase the corporate and capital gains tax rates by five percent to fund their investments in climate and an expanded social safety net, among other plans. Companies are asking the U.S. government to do the work but they don’t want to pay for it.
A large portion of the most significant conservation and restoration work will have to take place in low and middle-income countries.
If funding stands in the way of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, I don’t have too much hope for biodiversity. Reversing nature loss will be far more complicated and expensive than cutting greenhouse gas emissions. A large portion of the most significant conservation and restoration work will have to take place in low and middle-income countries. They are home to many of the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots but their governments’ ability to pass and enforce environmental legislation is even lower than that of wealthy countries like the U.S.
The Brazilian Amazon provides a vivid illustration of this challenge. One might assume that Brazil’s environmental agencies are using sophisticated systems to prevent deforestation. Yet in reality, a single official can be responsible for monitoring protected areas the size of Belgium. A lack of funds for things as basic as fuel and credible fear of retaliation from illegal loggers can exacerbate this challenge, a Stanford researcher who studies protected area management told me. This was the case even before Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro began to systematically dismantle his country’s environmental bureaucracy.
Businesses can’t ask governments to solve such complex problems while refusing to pay the taxes governments need to increase their capacity and continuing to put pressure on natural resources. Only once CEOs are willing to assume responsibility on all these fronts can they claim to “stand ready to work together with policymakers […] to deliver an equitable, nature-positive, net-zero world.”
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