FRIDAY 24 FEB 2023 11:24 AM


Addressing the COP15 biodiversity conference in December 2022, UN secretary-general António Guterres said: “We are committing suicide by proxy, because the loss of nature and biodiversity comes with a steep human cost[...]" Kathleen Enright, global managing director at Salterbaxter, argues that, in the fight to protect biodiversity, business needs go beyond zero impact and reach regeneration.

The disconnect between business and society has created a fragmented approach to the environmental crisis. Corporates can address single issues, such as reducing carbon emissions, but lose sight of the wider and interconnected imperative of protecting nature and biodiversity. For one, carbon is an easier-to-measure, more linear problem than halting biodiversity loss. Quick fix ‘solutions’ such as offsetting give carbon a line on the P&L, without addressing the root cause. But biodiversity also needs to get on to the P&L.

Wildlife populations have declined by two-thirds in the last 50 years due to ecosystem fragmentation, climate change and habitat loss. Failure to preserve the Earth’s flora, fauna and microbiomes is undermining food security, precipitating natural disasters, and raising our exposure to zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19. It also leads to economic catastrophe, as over half of global GDP depends on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystems. Nature loss puts both lives and livelihoods at risk.

Attempts have been made to put a price tag on environmental impacts; notably Jochen Zeitz’s work with Puma in the early 2010s. Now, however, corporates need to recognise the strength of nature’s business case and factor it into their own operations. If we are to protect and restore vital biodiversity, a value must be applied to the services that nature has previously performed for free.

Committing to 30x30

We have limited time to stabilise and regenerate nature by transforming society’s relationship with the planet and seeing our role as actively giving back instead of just taking. At COP15 in December, 195 nations signed the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. The ‘30x30’ agreement commits to protecting 30% of the planet’s land and 30% of its oceans by 2030.

At the World Economic Forum at Davos in January, the power of 30x30 was linked to the emotional pull of “saving nature” versus the more cerebral goal of “limiting climate change”. Perhaps the very visible impacts of biodiversity strategies – and the obvious costs of their failure – will see governments and corporations respond more effectively than they have to date on the Paris Climate Agreement.  

The challenges, however, are substantial. The UN reports that a global area the size of China needs to be rewilded to achieve 30x30. Who will lead the charge? Industry bodies may have to drive nature protection, as few companies will want to be first movers if it means having to increase prices in the current economic climate. There remains a disconnect between the real cost of biodiversity and pricing – one which cannot be fixed by corporates alone. 

Putting a price on nature

Valuing nature at its true worth allows its protection to be entered on the balance sheet. Consider the parable of Chinese farmers hand pollinating apple trees after local bee populations were destroyed by pesticides, honey harvesting and deforestation. Apple yields increased (people working in shifts get more done than bees) so no one tried to save the bees. But bees don’t only pollinate apple trees, their value is far more widespread, which is exactly why the markets shouldn’t dictate the value of nature.

How do we quantify the complex value of natural capital and the impact of its loss? Valuation frameworks for nature have been proposed in the past, but the need for a universal measure of biodiversity and its monetary worth to business is now acute. At the World Economic Forum in January, we saw various ideas posited for tradeable credits and accurate risk valuations of the destruction of biodiversity.

But frameworks won’t fix the crisis. We’ve run out of credit, and as well as ceasing to draw on the Bank of Mother Nature, we have to start repaying our debt by investing in regeneration. We don’t just need to stop the human activities that are devaluing natural capital and build protective walls around conservation areas – we have to reverse the destruction we have wrought. 

The agriculture example

Reshaping business along the principles of natural regeneration may seem an impossible task, but if we start with the biggest impacts and broadest goals, significant change can be wrought relatively quickly. Agriculture is a prime example.

In recent centuries, farming has worked against, rather than with, nature. Pesticide poisoning, habitat destruction and soil depletion can all be laid at its door. But agriculture is impossible in depleted ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture (RA) is the answer. It works by not only ending deforestation but planting millions of trees; by reducing water usage and improving waste management, but also restoring natural water sources.

Multinationals including Nestlé are leading the charge on RA practices and impact measurement. With more than 500,000 producers in the company’s sourcing network, that impact could be significant. The benefits of its more holistic approach to responsible business operations include enabling sustainable, nutritious diets; protecting and restoring natural environments; and strengthening communities.

Corporates may find that implementing regenerative agriculture at scale is hampered by the different techniques required to farm in different environments. But local solutions can disprove global averages. Research by the Syngenta Foundation shows localised solutions can be scaled by bringing smallholders and bigger market players together to innovate, develop and share restorative farming methods.

A focus on nature in farming means a localised view, and fundamentally a focus on people leading to better overall outcomes. The social and business benefits of regenerative agriculture include reviving indigenous farming approaches, building loyal producer-consumer relationships, the creation of networks of regenerative ranchers and stronger communities, and the foundation of co-operatives that increase the market power of small producers.

Regenerative agriculture is about taking a restorative approach – to nature, to business in society, to how we live as citizens. Businesses across all sectors can benefit from identifying where natural resources constitute value to their operations and assessing their role in the depletion of nature, in order to create a circular business model that pays the planet back for what we take.