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The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity

Protecting nature is a crucial part of environmental action. The private sector has a key role to play in saving species and habitats.

As temperatures rise and natural disasters increase, climate change is rightfully at the top of the global political agenda. The economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine and the pandemic has brought firmly into focus the need to shift away from fossil fuels – not only to reduce soaring household bills, but to protect our planet.

But among these two crises lies another challenge that receives comparatively little attention – the biodiversity crisis. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) 2020 Living Planet Report, our planet’s wildlife populations have plummeted by 68 per cent since 1970, with no signs that this downward trend is slowing. One million species are currently at risk of extinction, while many of the world’s tropical rainforests, coral reefs and wetlands are on the brink of collapse. After two years of delays, the next United Nations biodiversity conference – Cop15 – is set to take place this December in Montreal, Canada, as experts warn that the global biodiversity loss needs urgent attention.

Biodiversity and climate are also linked in a vicious cycle. The destruction of forests and other flora results in higher carbon emissions, while rising global temperatures and habitat loss in turn contribute to species’ extinction. And once these species are extinct, there is no way to bring them back, says Tom Butterworth, head of ecology at leading engineering professional services consultancy WSP.

“The climate crisis gets a lot of attention and rightly so,” says Butterworth. “But we won’t reach net zero without ecosystem restoration – if we were to lose all our wetlands and tropical rainforests, we simply wouldn’t meet our targets.”

This disruption to ecosystems can have wide-ranging consequences for humans, including restricted access to food, water, fuel and potentially life-saving medicines.

The wider societal and economic impacts are also huge. The pandemic showed us that access to nature improves our physical and mental health, and quality of life. The OECD estimates that the ecosystem benefits delivered by biodiversity, such as crop pollination, water purification and carbon capture and storage, are worth an estimated $125trn per year.

Despite this, biodiversity is not currently a priority for many organisations. According to research from Oxford University, less than a third of Fortune 100 companies have clear biodiversity targets.

The UK Business and Biodiversity Forum (UKBBF) is a hub that helps companies understand the value of biodiversity and integrate it into their business strategies. WSP, which is a member of the UKBBF’s steering committee, looks to achieve biodiversity net gain through its development projects. This is an approach to construction and land management that leaves the natural environment in a better state than before, as measured by Nature England’s biodiversity metric tool.

Research shows that businesses could unlock $10trn and create 395 million jobs by 2030 if they invested more in protecting nature. But setting biodiversity targets is not simple and depends on multiple factors, including the location, size and function of a business, says Butterworth. The UKBBF is developing a pledge, which will include ten core principles that can help companies integrate biodiversity into their whole business beyond their land use, including their everyday practices and supply chains. The idea is to work towards being “nature positive” – a global campaign to “halt and restore” nature loss and return it to its 2020 state by 2030.

Core principles of the pledge include: ensuring long-term outcomes for nature; setting targets and increasing these year-on-year; integrating targets with existing net zero and environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets; reporting progress transparently; and collaborating with other businesses.

For development projects specifically, another approach is to apply the “mitigation hierarchy” – a step-by-step process to construction based on avoiding, minimising, mitigating and offsetting impacts. This starts with avoiding areas of high biodiversity value such as woodlands, wetlands and grasslands; followed by timing the construction appropriately; mitigating impact by restoring as much as possible, such as by replanting trees; then finally compensating losses by introducing new ways to boost biodiversity.

The crux is to find out as much as possible about a site before work starts, says Butterworth. When working with clients, WSP uses tools such as aerial photography, remote sensing technology (which captures ecological data by measuring an area’s radiation), species surveys and habitat mapping to assess the projected impact of its plans.

Working with Northumbria University and environmental organisation Ecosystems Knowledge Network, WSP has also developed a free-to-use “nature tool”, which allows engineers and architects to assess the impact of future works on a site. It creates a score, looking at metrics such as air quality, flood risk and access to green space. The tool is free to access online, as industry collaboration is essential for improving biodiversity, says WSP’s Butterworth.

Using predictive technology helps to find where “nature can provide a cheaper, more efficient solution” to problems, he says. For instance, when working with Transport for London, WSP was able to find ways to manage and cut trees that would both boost biodiversity and prevent travel disruptions.

The home construction company Barratt Developments also applies the mitigation hierarchy to its work, looking to “get the best out of its developments for nature”, says Helen Nyul, group head of biodiversity. It works in partnership with the conservation charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to ensure nature is “factored in very early on in the site acquisition stage” then putting back in as much biodiversity as possible through the landscape design.

One major project is Kingsbrook, a development of roughly 2,000 homes in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, that feature a range of nature-friendly features. These include “swift nesting bricks” – a custom brick designed by the RSPB that replaces a regular brick in a house’s structure and allows swifts (a rapidly declining urban bird) to nest within them.

They also feature gardens that have been designed to nurture wildlife, and “hedgehog highways” – holes drilled into the bottom of garden fences that allow hedgehogs to pass through safely so they don’t get killed by traffic. Sustainable urban drainage systems are integrated into the properties, which collect rainwater from roofs and roads to create micro wetlands, then drain it away naturally. This both reduces flooding and helps water wildlife thrive.

Barratt has also produced guides and a bespoke website for homeowners on maintaining the biodiversity of their outdoor spaces. “Homeowners are the custodians of those sites going forward,” says Nyul. “They are responsible for those areas of habitat creation. It’s also about placemaking – it makes attractive spaces that people want to live in.”

Investing in biodiversity from the start saves both the business and the consumer money, she adds. Designing in these elements at the beginning means there are no retrofitting costs, while management of biodiverse green spaces is less labour- and cost-intensive than regular gardens or grasslands, as the grass only needs to be cut once or twice a year to provide a sustainable source of food for wildlife.

Nigel Symes, business advice unit leader at the RSPB, says that investing in biodiversity also makes business sense in terms of attracting customers and clients, as people are becoming increasingly more nature-conscious. His unit works with businesses such as Barratt to help them manage land in a biodiverse way, often embedding a business conservation adviser within their company.

Large-scale commercial-charity partnerships such as Barratt-RSPB inspire other businesses, he adds. In addition to the 4,000 swift nesting bricks that have been installed across Barratt properties, another 3,000 have now been installed by other developers. “Working with a partner gets others to follow,” he says. “It’s about creating momentum and using the business to demonstrate that it’s practical.”

Barratt also boosts local biodiversity through environmental projects, such as building bird nesting boxes, selling them and donating the money to wildlife trusts. However, Nyul says businesses should take an integrated and holistic approach and avoid tokenism to really instil change. Joining the UK Business and Biodiversity Forum to learn from other businesses is a good place to start. “It’s important not to just think about this piecemeal,” she says. “It needs to become a fundamental approach to managing risk and opportunity around biodiversity as a business.”

Businesses also need to consider biodiversity and climate change targets as part of a bigger environmental picture. Many solutions lend themselves to both, she says – wildlife-friendly gardens also reduce a company’s carbon emissions.

Thinking about them together can lead to smarter solutions, adds the RSPB’s Symes. For instance, buildings that incorporate both green roofs and solar panels generate more power, because foliage improves the energy generating capacity of the solar power. Equally, the land under a solar farm can be managed to ensure it supports natural habitats and allows creatures to forage for food. Collaboration between different industries – renewables and ecology – is crucial. “A lot of these challenges just require exchange of knowledge rather than being insurmountable,” he says.

Some impetus to improve the UK’s biodiversity credentials is now being driven by the UK government – under the Environment Act, all new developments will be obligated to achieve 10 per cent biodiversity net gain from 2023 onwards. But the private sector has a vital role to play in taking the initiative beyond its land use. Everything we do and consume daily – from the cars we drive to the smartphones we use and the food we eat – will impact the environments in which they are made and travel.

This affects the economy, the climate and our health and happiness – the benefits of hearing birdsong in the morning or seeing butterflies on a walk through the park cannot be underestimated. “Imagine growing up in a society where the only species around you are rats, cockroaches and poplars,” says WSP’s Butterworth. “Being human would be a completely different thing.”

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