In the coming weeks, the world’s nations will converge under the auspices of the United Nations to address one of the most critical issues of our time — one that has existential implications for every living thing. The decisions made at that summit, and whose views dominate, could be momentous, with long-lasting impacts for companies, economies and humanity.
No, not THAT global summit.
I’m talking about COP15 — aka the "Biodiversity COP" — taking place Oct. 11-15, in Kumming, China. In the media, COP15 seems to have taken a backseat to COP26, the "Climate COP" taking place a few weeks later in Glasgow, Scotland, but it’s no less important, with potentially significant ramifications for businesses.
Momentum is starting to build. Just last week, for example, more than 100 organizations issued a joint call for governments to strengthen the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework being negotiated by governments. There is growing concern over the lack of ambition displayed by governments negotiating the agreement.
For companies, COP15 is no sideshow.
For companies, COP15 is no sideshow. About $44 trillion of global GDP — just over half of all economic activity around the world — is moderately or highly dependent on nature, according to research released last year. Protecting that natural capital means protecting companies’ futures.
To learn more about the implications of COP15 for the business world, and how the private sector can engage, I recently spoke with Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a global coalition of companies calling for governments to reverse nature loss. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Makower: Let's just start with the basics. What’s the elevator pitch for COP15?
Eva Zabey: The elevator pitch is that just as the We Mean Business Coalition mobilized the leading business voices ahead of the Paris Agreement on climate in 2015, Business for Nature is doing the same, and there's the same momentum and interest and engagement in the business community around nature and biodiversity ahead of COP15. Just as the Paris Agreement set rules and the mission that the world then rallied behind, the aim is that what's called the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will provide that same mission, goals and targets.
Makower: What’s at issue here?
Zabey: The issue is that it's not strong enough in the current draft. So, Business for Nature has been getting input from businesses and our partners to provide constructive and specific recommendations to the negotiators on the targets. And thanks to our engagement, we're really pleased that, for example, now there is a target on the role of business, and the words around value and embedding nature in decision-making are stronger. But still, there's a way to go.
Eva Zabey, courtesy Business for Nature
A lot of the questions that businesses ask are "What is the 1.5-degree equivalent for nature?" And so that's why one of our top messages is that the mission of the framework needs to be reversing nature loss by 2030. We've got to completely have halted the loss and then reverse it. CEOs of organizations like WWF, The Nature Conservancy, Business for Nature and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development all agreed on this global goal.
We have already more than 900 companies that have signed the Nature is Everyone's Business Call to Action, which essentially urges governments to adopt policies now to reverse nature loss in this decade. It's the first time that we have companies actually rallying behind some of these important messages.
Makower: So, what are the delegates to the COP actually going to be negotiating?
Zabey: It includes a whole host of goals and targets. The three key messages from us right now are setting the global mission for nature, strengthening the targets around valuing and embedding nature into all decision-making, and strengthening the elements around eliminating and redirecting all subsidies that are harmful for biodiversity to help close that big biodiversity financing gap, which is over $700 billion.
Makower: I want to explore the role of finance. As you know, there’s been kind of an arms race among banks in making commitments to a low-carbon or net-zero world. Is there an equivalent on the biodiversity side?
What is the 1.5-degree equivalent for nature?
Zabey: When we talk about nature, we're talking about not only biodiversity but also land, water, oceans. For those financial institutions, they're thinking about, obviously, the risks in their portfolios. And there's the parallel again, with TCFD, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. Now, you'll have the TNFD, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures.
Right now, companies aren't quite ready to make big headline commitments, but I could anticipate that coming. A number are working behind the scenes on understanding those risks, including natural capital risks, in their decision-making. BNP Paribas Asset Management, for example, has put a plus-or-minus 30 percent overlay in the ESG rating score of some companies, depending on their natural capital impacts.
Makower: What is the ask of companies right now? What do you want to see from the world's biggest companies?
Zabey: In terms of what they can do right now on their journey to become nature-positive, or contribute to a nature-positive world, there are four things: assess; commit; act; and advocate.
So, assess. They need to make sure that they have measured and value the most material impacts of dependencies on nature.
Commit means making meaningful informed public commitments and making sure that the targets they're setting are based on science. So again, another parallel here is the Science Based Targets initiative for climate; now we've got the Science Based Targets for Nature Network coming up with methodologies. They're not quite ready yet, but there's initial guidance already in place. And we can look out for freshwater and land methodologies coming out later this year.
On act, it's making sure you're not only reducing negative impacts but then going beyond restoring, and that's where we see all of this terminology — regenerative, restorative, nature-positive — giving back more than you take and transforming your business model to be more circular.
And then advocate — helping to make sure that the regulatory environment but also the financial system recognizes that performance beyond financial, environmental and social are taken into account. The theory here is that as we scale and speed up, one of the biggest levers to change is going to be the policy ambition, which will drive even more business action on the ground.
Makower: So, all of this is happening before COP15?
Zabey: Right now, COP15 is going to be in two parts. Part one, in October, is going to be very high-level. It is only going to be heads of state — a very restricted number — and there will be no negotiations. The negotiations will pick up again in April or May. In each of these opportunities, there's a chance for CEOs and companies to raise their voice on social media.
Makower: What do you want them to say, and to whom?
Zabey: I think what governments need to hear is the economic imperative, that every financial bottom line depends on the planet's health. The reality is, there are no healthy people on an unhealthy planet. If companies are stepping up, saying, "We realize that our business is not going to be functioning properly if we don't look after the foundation of biodiversity and our natural resources," that could be a strong message from businesses.
We talk about we're on a race to a nature-positive, net-zero, equitable world. It’s a great tagline, but you won't have a race if governments don't set the finish line and if you don't set the rules. Companies are now saying, "You need to give us that clarity so that it is actionable by business." Right now, the framework is not. And there's a real risk that it doesn’t end up being transformative and ambitious at the level that's needed. So, companies coming out with those messages to government are going to be very strong.
Makower: Obviously, the pandemic has slowed some of this down, but has the pandemic also given biodiversity a new sense of urgency?
Zabey: It definitely has. WWF-US commissioned a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit called "An eco-wakening." It found that around the world, there’s this increase in understanding of how valuable nature is, that people care about and are concerned about the loss of biodiversity.
Makower: Are you concerned that biodiversity is getting overshadowed by climate since, which seems to be — maybe a bad choice of words — sucking up all the oxygen? That it's hard to get the attention that this deserves?
Zabey: We need to tackle climate, nature loss and social inequality altogether. It's not an either/or. I think we should be smart about making sure that nature and biodiversity are part of the climate negotiations, as they increasingly are. Nature is one of the key themes at COP26. There's a lot of momentum around nature-based solutions to help tackle climate, which is great. And we always talk about the fact that nature is our biggest ally in tackling climate change. But at the same time, we won't be able to reverse biodiversity loss without a stable climate.
There's also a funding issue. Nature can provide up to 30 percent of the emission reductions that we need by 2030, but it only gets about 8 percent of public funding. So, if we increase our investments in nature to tackle climate, that would be one of those classic win-win-wins. But we've got to make sure we're doing it with high-quality, nature-based solutions, that it's not just "Plant any old tree."
It's funny, because even if you think about 15 or 20 years ago in the sustainability field, we wouldn't have dared say, 'You can talk to people's emotions.'
Makower: There is a huge education component or public awareness component here. But it's also a matter of capturing hearts and minds.
Zabey: It's funny, because even if you think about 15 or 20 years ago in the sustainability field, we wouldn't have dared say, "You can talk to people's emotions." It was, "You have to make the economic business case. Don't talk to people's hearts and minds." But I think the pandemic is making people realize we're all just humans, and we're all pretty fragile. The Nature Positive tagline is also quite compelling for companies because it's a sense of being part of the solution, of being a hero; it's not just doing less bad. I think that is very compelling from a personal and professional side.
Makower: So, when we talk next September, what's the story you hope to be able to tell about what's happened over that preceding 12 months?
Zabey: I would like to say that in May, governments around the world adopted a transformative, ambitious framework, which set the finish line and the rules of the game. That companies quickly set science-based targets for nature to make sure they're operating within planetary boundaries, as their contributions to implementing that framework. And that all other stakeholders are mobilized in a way towards that collective accountability system for our global commons. It's part of making sure that we not only measure value and report and disclose on impacts and dependencies, but that we hold each other accountable for remaining within those planetary boundaries, because we only have one planet.
I think there is absolutely certainty that biodiversity and nature-related risks and opportunities are not going away. And there is a whole network of organizations and other companies willing to help. Companies shouldn't feel overwhelmed or worried that they don't have all of the tools, or that they're not quite sure what their material impacts and dependencies are. Because to be honest, most companies still don't.
But they can think about the things they already know, like climate, like water, like forests. They've already been assessing this stuff. And getting a broader picture will just strengthen the resilience of their business.
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