Why halting nature loss is not enough: setting our sights on nature positive
The natural world urgently needs an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework at COP15, as consensus builds around what ‘nature positive’ means.
Written by Gavin Edwards, Director, Global Nature Positive Initiative, WWF International & Manuel Pulgar Vidal, UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s’ Action Agenda Champion For Nature and People
We are waking up to the profound crisis facing nature. Public concern is growing around the world about the destruction of habitats and the unprecedented rate of species extinction, and how this is undermining the very future of humanity. Biodiversity loss is reaching the boardrooms of leading companies. Governments are beginning to understand the impossibility of halting climate change without protecting nature.
It is vital, therefore, that an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is agreed in Montreal in December, at COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Critically, that framework needs to commit the world to becoming nature positive by 2030 and living in harmony with nature by 2050. These goals can become a lodestar we can use to track our progress and assess our actions, just as net zero emissions has become a lodestar for climate mitigation.
One effort cannot succeed without the other. Climate change is one of the key drivers of nature loss. Rising temperatures, extreme weather and the acidification of our oceans are all placing sometimes unbearable stresses on ecosystems and the species that live within them.
Nature, meanwhile, has been our secret ally — effectively regulating the climate system and blunting impacts such as extreme weather which take their toll on our economy and wellbeing. Around 50% of the emissions we produce each year are removed from the atmosphere by oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. Without this sequestration, the average global temperature rise would have far exceeded the 1.1°C we have already seen. However, these sequestration processes have their limits: just as a sodden sponge becomes unable to absorb more water, so the ability of natural systems to absorb ever more carbon will decline if we do not rapidly curb our emissions.
Nature and climate must be addressed simultaneously, while recognizing that they present different kinds.
What we mean when we talk about nature
It is therefore important to define our terms. First, by nature itself, we include not only living organisms, but the ecosystems within which they live. Second, nature positive by 2030 means that, by that date, nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery, such that there is more nature than in 2020. Third, living in harmony with nature by 2050 means that our natural systems have fully recovered. Different cultures describe this harmony and the pathway to it in different ways; in China, a framing of ‘Ecological Civilisation’ is embraced, while in Bolivia respecting Pachamama, or Mother Earth, guides their conservation and development.
The first steps on this journey must recognise that progress towards nature recovery cannot take place everywhere, immediately. The needs of poorer countries to equitably develop will inevitably lead to some unwelcome impacts on nature in the decades to come.
Therefore any development which impacts nature must be subject to strict principles and safeguards. Intact habitats and key biodiversity areas must be off limits to intensive development. Economic development must be subject to the mitigation hierarchy, with alternatives sought first, and impacts avoided or minimised as much as absolutely possible. In recognition of the remaining unavoidable impacts, it is vital that restoration or ecological enhancements of habitats become a high priority for governments, in particular for those countries that have lost so much nature already. It should be recognised that the uniqueness of individual ecosystems makes applying the concept of offsetting very challenging for nature so the safeguards noted here are essential for nature to shift to recovery.
Measuring the unique
Measuring how nature loss is declining or being reversed is also a significant challenge. We have more data than ever regarding the populations and health of species, changes in ecosystems and their functionality, and the natural processes that affect them such as extreme flooding in rivers and acidified oceans. Yet we only have a broad sense of how healthy or not the planet is.
For example, analysis of 32,000 wildlife species in the recently published Living Planet Report found a 69% decline in populations compared with 1970, and the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species grows ever longer. Yet both do not by themselves provide an overall barometer of the health of the biosphere, with important spatial measures such as the change in land use over time also equally important.
Measuring nature loss and recovery is still very much a work in progress, for which a number of organisations have developed a solid framework. It combines assessments of species health, ecosystem integrity and the functioning of natural processes. On species, it considers abundance, such as is captured by WWF’s Living Planet Index, and risk, as per the IUCN Red List. It also points to satellite imagery which can provide an assessment of how ecosystems are changing. For natural processes, the framework takes into account measurements such as carbon storage and riverine nutrient flows. These assessments have yet to be aggregated into a holistic picture of biodiversity health — this must be a priority if we are to track progress in the recovery of nature.
The next challenge is operationalising this measure, and how it might be applied. Nationally, there is limited progress, but we are hopeful that, if the GBF sets a goal of becoming nature positive by 2030, this will spur national governments to begin a more holistic accounting of the health of their national biodiversity
At the actor level, considerable work is underway to understand how to measure nature in recovery. For example, the Science Based Targets Network is planning to produce full guidance next year to help companies ensure their sustainability goals are aligned with the science around nature, and to enable them to contribute to a nature-positive world.
On the road to nature positive
“Contribute” is an important verb here. As is argued in a recent discussion paper from Business For Nature, how businesses can become nature positive is “the subject of debate and confusion”, which risks undermining the concept.
As the paper says, if a business or financial institution contributes more to restoring, regenerating and enhancing nature than to harming it, across their value chains and portfolios, they could theoretically be nature positive. However, businesses tend to operate across multiple systems and value chains, with complex impacts and dependencies, and with shared influence and accountability.
Understanding and addressing these impacts and dependencies will require considerable investment of time and resources and is likely to be a multi-year process. We, in common with many other NGOs working in this area, believe that businesses are unlikely to be in a position for some years to claim that they have become “nature positive” in their own right.
Here, again, there is an analogy with climate change. There is a growing recognition that using a simple accounting measure, and a large proportion of carbon offsets, to claim that a business (or country) is ‘carbon net zero’ is slowing progress towards a 1.5°C trajectory at a time when we need to be accelerating such progress. Instead, companies must decarbonize rapidly and contribute whatever they can to attaining a 1.5°C trajectory.
We think this is the right approach for nature. For business and finance, a focus on making the largest contributions possible to a nature-positive world must be the priority, and action must be swift. This will involve a process of assessing impacts and dependencies on nature, committing to targets to address these impacts, transforming business models and value chains, and working to influence system-level change.
That system-level change needs to start at the international level. Given the inter-relationships with climate change, we need to see strong commitments to nature at COP27 in Egypt. And we need to see that momentum carried forward to Montreal at COP15, for an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework. It is time to begin addressing the crisis that the natural world faces, and work rapidly towards a nature-positive world.