Net positive to nature positive: part one

25 July 2022

Corporate strategies for nature

Nature positive will see businesses evolve in four key dimensions to deliver outcomes aligned with global goals, and to contribute to systemic changes in production. 

Nature positive is perhaps the most engaging idea to emerge from business sustainability in the last decade. It is intuitive, appealing and apparently simple. But while the concept may seem simple, achieving it is not. Moving towards nature positive will mean transformative shifts, both for individual companies and the economic and production systems in which they operate.

But what does nature positive really mean for business? A recent study, led by The Biodiversity Consultancy in collaboration with academics from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and The Wildlife Trusts, reviews the emerging trend of nature positive in business – its definitions, key criteria and areas where business and society will need to progress to make nature positive a reality. The study also looked at how far current biodiversity commitments have advanced towards a nature-positive approach in the last five years.

You can find the pre-print of the study here.

This blog focuses on progress in defining and understanding what nature positive is – and needs to be – and the key elements that nature-positive business strategies will need to incorporate. A follow-up will cover the detailed findings of the study as well as some of the emerging solutions to the challenges addressed here.


Nature positive: definitions and key concepts

The idea of nature positive emerges from the urgent need to conserve and restore nature – with widespread recognition of the pace at which species and ecosystems are disappearing and the scale of risk this poses to business and society (see, IPBES Global Assessment, WWF Living Planet Report, The Dasgupta Review).

Many initiatives are exploring and promoting the concept of nature positive – but with different interpretations of what it means. There is – as yet – no consensus on what constitutes a ‘nature-positive business strategy’, or exactly how nature positive differs from previous business approaches focused on no net loss or net positive impact. Inconsistent definition and application of the concept runs the risk of it becoming meaningless jargon and could lead to perverse outcomes for nature, or greenwashing.

Review of the definitions or uses of ‘nature-positive’ adopted by key organisations attempting to operationalise the concept

Institution

Type of definition

Description of ‘nature-positive’

Science-based targets network (SBTN)

Conceptual

Discusses the “elements of… nature-positivity”: collective action to avoid and reduce pressures on nature and contribute towards nature regeneration, and judging success not only by the outcomes of the individual actor but also the wider ecosystem in which it is embedded (SBTN, 2021a)

UK Council for Sustainable Business

Conceptual

“A nature-positive approach puts nature and biodiversity gain at the heart of decision-making and design. It goes beyond reducing and mitigating negative impacts on nature as it is a proactive and restorative approach focused on conservation, regeneration, and growth.” (CSB, 2022)

UNEP

Conceptual

“A Nature-positive Economy [is] an economy that is regenerative, collaborative and where growth is only valued where it contributes to social progress and environmental protection” (UNEP, 2021)

World Economic Forum

Conceptual

“A nature-positive built environment shares space with nature, putting whole ecosystems rather than humans alone at the centre of design”

“Nature-positive extractive processes have the potential to minimize destructive land management practices and enhance conservation efforts to offset biodiversity impacts that cannot be either avoided or mitigated”

“A nature-positive energy transition has the potential to further both global climate and nature goals” (WEF, 2020)

Global goal for nature

Target-based

“Zero Net Loss of Nature from 2020, Net Positive by 2030, and Full Recovery by 2050” (Locke et al., 2021)

IUCN

Target-based

“…an equitable, nature-positive and net zero world [would] ensure there is more nature globally in 2030 than there was in 2020, by halting and reversing the loss of nature to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of all people and the planet by 2030, as well as tackle climate change, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and enable people and communities to thrive in a healthy and stable future” (IUCN, 2020)

Natural England and UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee

Target-based

“Becoming Nature-positive means reversing the current declines in biodiversity, so that species and ecosystems begin to recover” (JNCC, 2021)

Nature-positive Universities network

Target-based

“Nature-positive means restoring species and ecosystems that have been harmed by the impacts of a university and its activities and enhancing the university’s positive impacts on nature” (Nature-positive Universities Network, 2022)

Taskforce for nature-related financial disclosure

Target-based

“A high-level goal and concept describing a future state of nature (e.g. biodiversity, ecosystem services and natural capital) which is greater than the current state” (TNFD, 2022a)

Business for Nature

Process-based

Does not define nature-positive, but outlines how to achieve nature-positive outcomes via a process of “assess, commit, act, advocate” (Business For Nature, 2021)

World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Process-based

Does not define nature-positive, but outlines how to achieve nature-positive outcomes via the procedural building blocks of “assess and prioritise, commit, measure and value, act, transform, disclose and report” (WBCSD, 2021b)

Whether adopting a conceptual, target- or process-based definition, nature positive is about systems-wide transformation as much as it is about making nature a part of decision-making at a company level – reducing the systemic risk to society and economies from nature and biodiversity loss.

This implies a need for significant coordination and collaboration between actors and stakeholders, within and across sectors, to ensure their combined actions deliver positive outcomes in line with shared global goals for nature’s recovery. The outcomes from political and business interventions will need to go beyond an organisational level and individual mitigation efforts to deliver transformative change that can reverse the tide of biodiversity loss at scale.


Why nature positive now? An evolution in business strategy

As well as increased recognition of urgency and risks, business strategy is evolving in response to the need for broader thinking on impacts and dependencies, and on the interlinkages between different elements of nature.

In business contexts, no net loss/net positive impact commitments – the previous ‘gold standard’ for corporate biodiversity action – have typically focused on applying the mitigation hierarchy to direct operational impacts, and have been most widely applied in the extractive industries.

For many companies, biodiversity impacts and dependencies in supply chains – or downstream value chains – may be much more significant than from direct operations.

The current shift toward nature positive reflects an ongoing trend to bring the full value chain into scope, not just direct operations.

‘Nature’ is often used as a shorthand for biodiversity, but it is a broader concept that also encompasses non-living components such as climate, soil and water. For nature positive approaches to succeed, it will be crucial to integrate planning and action across these distinct but interlinked components of nature, as well as embedding a full consideration of the social aspects.

Social equity – part of the nature-positive puzzle

Even positive impacts on nature will be experienced differently by local, regional and international actors. Whereas actions to protect nature around production and development sites, for example to sequester carbon, may benefit international actors, there is a risk that access to natural resources or areas of recreational or cultural significance may be limited or restricted for local groups.

To avoid potential unintended consequences for people, nature-positive business strategies should be designed to recognise and respect the different values local groups place on nature and understand what nature positive means for them through equitable consultation. Where there is the potential for human wellbeing to be affected, nature-positive approaches should – at the very least – seek to maintain levels of wellbeing through balancing people-nature trade-offs, but where possible, aim to enhance placed-based nature values for improved outcomes for local groups.


Components of a nature positive strategy

For corporate strategy, nature positive means an evolution in biodiversity commitments across four key dimensions: scope, mainstreaming, integration and ambition.

Advances in these areas will be necessary for business to deliver outcomes aligned with global biodiversity goals, and to contribute to the systemic changes in economic and production systems that will make those goals achievable.

As many, or even most companies’ value chain impacts will dwarf those from their direct physical footprint, it will be vital to better account for, mitigate and manage these impact risks. This requires expanding what is in scope for business strategy in two directions:

  • Vertically – to achieve positive biodiversity outcomes up and down a company’s own value chain
  • Horizontally – by working towards transformative, sector-wide sustainability practices

Addressing value chain impacts remains a challenge but is becoming much more feasible for companies with the advent of better measurement methods and high-resolution supply chain data. This enables companies to understand and map their impacts and focus action on priority areas.

To ensure that their positive actions are not undermined by lagging efforts elsewhere in a sector, leading businesses will want to use their influence to help drive improved sustainability practices through heightened engagement and collaboration with other actors and stakeholders. This is reflected in the ‘transform’ and ‘advocate’ steps for implementing a nature-positive approach identified by WBCSD and Business for Nature.

Managing biodiversity at project sites is typically the domain of ecological managers, but the shift to nature-positive strategy or principles at a company-wide scale relies on the buy-in and proactive engagement from a whole range of employees across the entire business and at board level.

Effecting change requires nature to be mainstreamed into business decision-making – through governance, strategy, risk management and targets and metrics, as outlined by the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). Organisational target setting will be key. Setting SMART targets (specific, measurable, accepted, realistic and time-bound) across different business areas can act as an incentive, and hold the organisation to account in achieving its overarching biodiversity goals.

When organisations address multiple dimensions of nature separately through independent strategies – such as for climate, water, soil or biodiversity – there is a risk that action taken for one dimension can undermine, rather than reinforce actions taken for another.

For example, decarbonisation strategies that do not consider biodiversity can have unintended consequences – higher demand for biofuel crops may accelerate land-use change, and seemingly-benign natural carbon sequestration projects can damage ecosystems if non-native species are planted on natural habitats.

Tying together corporate action on environmental impacts through a nature-positive strategy means taking an integrated, holistic approach, where impacts are considered in a coherent manner to avoid exacerbating other environmental risks, and promoting synergies where possible. This could involve investing in solutions designed to contribute to multiple goals, such as through nature-based solutions or combined target setting.

Nature positive as a framing for action is closely tied to the idea of a global goal for nature, aiming to bend the curve of biodiversity loss by 2030 and achieve a full recovery of nature by 2050. The global goal for nature has strong support from civil society. Its key approach, to halt loss and move towards recovery, is expected to be reflected in the high-level goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework, currently still in negotiation. Related global goals and targets for nature are embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals and in, for example, the Bonn Challenge for forest landscape restoration.

Avoiding impacts where possible will be central to corporate ambitions to go nature positive and deforestation-free and conversion-free commitments will be a major part of any robust strategy. To align with broader societal targets for nature recovery, nature-positive approaches require avoidance and reduction – not just compensation – of impacts across the whole value chain to alleviate pressures on nature.

To effectively deliver the absolute gains in the state of biodiversity required by a nature positive global goal, companies will also need to contribute to addressing a proportion of historical impacts. Determining a fair allocation of responsibility for past impacts will be a major milestone in the journey to a nature-positive future and is actively being explored by key target-setting institutions, such as the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN).

To operationalise higher levels of ambition, it is key to define what an organisation’s biodiversity goals should be. This is a central focus of the TNFD and the SBTN, which both anticipate publishing further guidance in 2023 on how organisations can set goals aligned with global targets.

 


Achieving transformative change

Whilst action to avoid and reduce a companies’ own impacts on biodiversity is the critical first step, nature positive also requires transformative change, at both a business and systems scale.

Industries highly dependent on nature, for whom nature loss is a serious material threat, will benefit most from collective action on system-wide transformation. It is unlikely that companies ‘going it alone’ will be enough to generate improvements at the scale required for nature’s recovery. Targeted coordination through industry and sectoral initiatives focused on priority areas will be needed to prevent the leakage or impact shifting that occurs when a sector does not move together on sustainability issues.

This shift will be much more rapid and effective if supported by government action to create an enabling environment and a level regulatory field. Advocating for constructive change from government is one of many areas where collective business action will be essential. Many challenges in implementing nature positive – including improved spatial information, supply chain transparency, clear definitions of good practice, the identification of transformative actions, and defined responsibilities – require concerted action within and across sectors and with government, civil society and other stakeholders.

Recognition of the need for systemic, transformational change is a defining feature of a nature positive approach. This can seem incredibly complex, and, as our pre-print shows, will require a step-change from current corporate commitments and strategies. However, as the second part of this blog will show, many tools and approaches are already available to enable a nature positive approach, while others are developing rapidly. There is no time to lose. Now is the pivotal moment to translate business enthusiasm for nature-positive action into structured, coherent and collaborative programmes for change.

 


 

Leon Bennun

By Leon Bennun

Chief Scientist

Malcolm Starkey

By Malcolm Starkey

Chief Innovation Officer

Categories: Insight, Biodiversity Strategy, Nature Positive, No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact, The Mitigation Hierarchy, Biodiversity Risk and Opportunity

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