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Can digital ecosystems save species from extinction?

It's a fact: Homo sapiens are wiping out the rest of the planet's species. How can the surge of digital technology be harnessed to protect biodiversity?

Biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES) — in other words, those natural systems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival — face threats that are increasing in number and severity.

Our planet on life support

Pressured by mega-forces such as human population growth, overconsumption, habitat destruction and carbon emissions, species are going extinct at unprecedented rates. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that between 1970 and 2010, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent. And over the next century, we stand to lose half of all global species.

Much of the value that BES provides to business and society goes unaccounted for. UNEP-FI (PDF) estimates that in 2010, the cost of environmental damage to the global economy hit $6.6 trillion — 11 percent of the global GDP. At this rate, environmental damage will amount to $28 trillion by 2050. Notably, one-third of global environmental destruction (equivalent to $2.2 trillion) was carried out by the world's top 3,000 public companies.

Between 1970 and 2010, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent.

But it is not too late to resuscitate environmental ecosystems. In 2015, almost 200 nations agreed on ambitious goals for sustainable development and climate neutrality. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate agreement represent a historic opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people while securing a positive environmental legacy.

The Paris Agreement and the SDGs both recognize the private sector’s importance in solving the planet’s ecological crisis, a theme reinforced at the second annual Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit last week. For its part, the private sector looks ready for the challenge.

The 2016 United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy CEO Study reveals that CEOs today see a mandate to solve societal challenges as a core element in the search for competitive advantage. The majority of CEOs surveyed (87 percent) believe the SDGs provide an opportunity to rethink approaches to sustainable value creation — and 78 percent already have identified opportunities in which their core business can contribute. That is a sea of change from 2013 research results.

Digital Biodiversity Disruptors

Increased competition for scarce natural resources, coupled with rising green consumerism, is compelling businesses to mitigate their environmental impacts, for instance by issuing corporate-wide BES strategies or engaging in biodiversity markets. More recently, however, corporates have begun to not only work through, but indeed grow from, the pain. The resulting innovations are both economic and ecological successes:

  • Optimizers work to improve the efficiency of existing operations or reduce costs. Adobe’s EchoSign feature enables users to carry out one of the most fundamental steps in any transaction — signing your name — without printing a single sheet of paper, much less disturbing a single habitat. In 2013 alone, this saved 31.2 million pounds of wood, equivalent to nearly two-thirds of all printing and writing paper exported from Central America that year.

  • Enablers develop the technology and infrastructure that support innovative approaches. This article would not be complete without mention of the various tech giants that recently have thrown their significant resources and expertise behind biodiversity projects. Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett Packard and Google — to name but a few — have dedicated tools ranging from analytics to geospatial monitoring, environmental modeling to data visualization. Autodesk uses 3D modeling software to advance the built environment of tomorrow and, thanks to rising eco-standards in building codes, enables inventive architects and planners to develop low-carbon, high-BES designs and solutions of the future.

  • Finally, Transformers create radically new offerings and entirely new markets, all while eliminating resource dependency. Innovations in precision agriculture are disrupting the age-old industry of farming, through the use of technologies such as mobile, GPS, geomapping, aerial imagery and drones. These enable more targeted use of pesticides and therefore less mortality of "good pests" such as pollinators, reduced water consumption for irrigation and increased productivity, alleviating pressure to convert virgin into arable land.

The prognosis

Digital technology is a powerful lever whereby business can pivot in a more sustainable direction. This approach fosters innovative ecological solutions while strengthening businesses by uncovering new revenue streams, cost reductions and risk management solutions.

Of course, individual organizations embarking on this journey will do well to partner and collaborate with peers and allies in industry, government and the civil sector. For this we can look back on the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement for guidance, and use the outcomes of future environmental conferences with resolve.

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