Comment: Why a ‘Paris Agreement for nature’ won’t happen without help from business

An excavator clears rocks into a dumper at a gold mine in Burkina Faso. Reuters/Anne Mimault/File Photo

December 6 - Business-as-usual is not a viable scenario when it comes to nature. It’s declining faster than at any point in human history. One million species are currently at risk of extinction. Considering that all life on this planet, including our own, depends on nature’s ecosystems, we urgently need a global agreement to protect and restore them at the COP15 U.N. biodiversity conference beginning this week in Canada.

The aim of COP15 is to achieve a ‘Paris Agreement for nature’, but protecting and restoring nature isn't possible without the help of the private sector. The value chains of most major businesses contribute to biodiversity loss, so achieving such an agreement will rely on the involvement of companies and finance to make it happen. Incoming policy and regulation and increased investor and civil society pressures mean that taking action to protect and restore nature is fast becoming a business imperative.

Right now, fewer than 1% of the world’s most influential companies know how much their operations depend on nature. Only 5% have carried out a science-based assessment to see how their activities impact on wildlife, trees and plants.

Harnessing the knowledge and insights of local communities and indigenous peoples within nature-related business operations is critical, as they can maximise proven practices to ensure effective ecosystem protection.

These findings from the World Benchmarking Alliance’s (WBA’s) first ever Nature Benchmark, assessing close to 400 companies, show an overarching trend. The world’s most influential businesses in sectors with a significant impact on nature – like mining, construction, pharmaceuticals, packaging, tyres, apparel and chemicals – are not stepping up to protect and restore it. If companies are to survive against a backdrop of increasing regulation and pressure, this must change.

A bee sits on a flower budding from an almond tree, which rely on natural pollinators for fertilization in an Almonds grove in Tel Arad, southern Israel March 4, 2020. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen/File Photo

Our research tells us that 97% of companies assessed in the Nature Benchmark have not committed to a nature-positive strategy, though 50% are taking action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving net-zero is not possible without the protection of forests, water sources, insects, animals, marine life, birds and air quality. Protecting the climate and the natural world go hand-in-hand. The two are interdependent.

For business, nature protection and restoration represents an opportunity. While many companies are still struggling to understand and disclose their nature impacts and dependencies, this also poses an opportunity to change and lead on one of the most significant challenges in human history.

The first urgent step for all companies is to carry out a nature assessment, to understand their relationship with the natural world before they can improve it. In practice, this means measuring and reporting on critical problems, such as deforestation, pollution and habitat loss, and setting targets to reduce these impacts significantly.

As part of addressing their impact on nature, businesses must respect the rights of, and involve, indigenous peoples and local communities, who often live in critical ecosystems and coexist with threatened species. They manage about 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and their ecological knowledge enable a sustainable existence worldwide.

As things stand, only 13% of companies have a clear commitment to adhering to indigenous peoples rights. Their knowledge is vital for turning biodiversity loss around. When it comes to operations on or near their lands, their insights are irreplaceable. They have spent millennia understanding the complexities of their local environment and honing practices to ensure it thrives.

A fisherman throws a net from his canoe in Xokleng Laklano indigenous land Santa Catarina state, Brazil, August 18, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Moreover, companies must also improve their transparency around their operations in biodiversity hotspots, for example rainforests. While half of companies disclose their site locations, only 14% clearly indicate if they are located in, or near, areas of high ecological value.

Finally, with wild areas so scarce, business must commit to stopping ecosystem conversion, such as the transformation of rainforest to agricultural land. Currently, fewer than 5% of companies have promised to do so.

When it comes to halting biodiversity loss and restoring crucial wild habitats, time is running out. A global agenda for the protection and regeneration of nature is crucial, but it will need the private sector to help deliver it. For that to happen, we will require robust monitoring, accountability mechanisms, and commitments, to highlight best practices from the leaders and ensure that the laggards on nature can be held to account.

The WBA aims to contribute to such mechanisms with the Nature Benchmark by holding companies to account, and forging multi-stakeholder partnerships to achieve a nature-positive future.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Vicky leads the climate and energy benchmark at the World Benchmarking Alliance, to support the decarbonisation of the economy. Vicky joined WBA in 2019 after wide-ranging experience including working with ABN AMRO Clearing Bank, in charge of energy and commodity clients.