Towards ecosystem-level thinking by the private sector

Aerial view of a huge natural mangrove forest with towering limestone cliffs (Phang Nga, Thailand)

UNEP-WCMC Nature Economy Programme Officer Dr Jacob Bedford highlights the value of private sector organisations taking a holistic interest in ecosystem health, and the latest tools to guide action.   

Despite the private sector’s role across a range of drivers of nature loss – from land use change to contributing to soil and water pollution and climate change – biodiversity management by the sector has historically been limited in its scope. Action has often focused on siloed lists of individual protected species, and largely prompted by the need to comply with local regulations.

Conversely, the private sector is a major beneficiary of the goods and services we derive from nature, and so is a key leverage point for “bending the curve” of biodiversity loss. This is being increasingly reflected in international policy – not least Target 15 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and related package of decisions – to emerging standards and initiatives for nature-related target setting and disclosure, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) framework.

Business is beginning to wake up to its dependency on nature, and biodiversity loss is now a much bigger sustainability issue, with a wider scope. This includes an increased understanding among sustainability professionals that individual species interact together with the environment in complex, intricate ecosystems – ranging from tropical forests to grasslands and deserts, to mangroves and coral reefs – which must be maintained in order to continue to provide the functions and benefits that both business and society depend on.  

In parallel, scientific understanding on ecosystem health, and how to measure it, is also ever-increasing. The concept of “ecosystem condition” describes an ecosystem’s health status at a given location, based on key characteristics. A further concept is “ecosystem integrity”, which describes the extent to which these key characteristics of an ecosystem, including the types and abundance of species it contains and its key functions, fall within their natural range of variation.

You might consider your garden to be ‘low condition’ if it was overrun with low-lying weeds instead of its usual tall flowers, if the soil was dry and crumbly, and the plants had stopped growing at their usual rate.  The same concepts of selecting key indicators and comparing to a desired healthy state is applied to measuring the condition, or integrity, of the planet’s natural ecosystems.  

New scientific innovations in data and methods, such as the developing Ecosystem Integrity Index, the IUCN Ecosystem Typology and Red List of Ecosystems, the Accounting for Nature methods catalogue and global modelling initiatives such as GLOBIO, are all opening up the potential for the private sector to include ecosystem condition in their measurement processes.

Measuring ecosystem condition is now emerging as a core requirement across many voluntary and mandatory reporting initiatives, including the TNFD and the Global Reporting Initiative. It can, however, be a complex landscape to navigate.

New guidance created by UNEP-WCMC and partners as part of the EU’s Align project, Measuring ecosystem condition – A primer for business aims to help businesses navigate the different approaches to screening and measuring ecosystem condition in different decision-making contexts, and explains how impacts on ecosystem condition can be recorded consistently and effectively. For example, a business may use a global ecosystem integrity spatial data layer to do a high-level screening of priority locations across its supply chain, and then use a detailed ecosystem accounting framework to track losses and gains in the condition of different ecosystem types at its most high-impact sites.

Ultimately, biodiversity is multi-faceted and comprises multiple dimensions. To capture and manage impacts and dependencies comprehensively, businesses should be considering biodiversity at both species and ecosystem levels.

As the world’s ecosystems are being categorised and mapped in a more consistent manner, and frameworks for tracking impacts on ecosystems are being agreed upon, “ecosystem-level thinking” by the private sector has real potential to drive standardised and comparable measurement of biodiversity performance. In turn, understanding and accounting for the condition of the world’s ecosystems will be crucial information that underpins a global economy that works more in harmony with and for nature.

Main image credit: AdobeStock_201141161

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