When cutting carbon emissions for the good of the planet became a corporate responsibility, in some ways it was an easy sell to CEOs. Along with the reputational benefits, companies were also able to work toward energy efficiency and reduced costs under the guise of "going green." There was also an easy, quantifiable number to work toward — net zero. These factors have allowed climate targets to see enormous proliferation and uptake from corporations.
"We do not have that same narrative on the nature side," said Martha Stevenson, senior director of strategy and research on the forest team at the World Wildlife Fund. "It's a much more dire narrative that the systems and processes that you depend on are not going to be working anymore and you don't value them because you’ve never had to."
Water cycles have been upended, causing neverending droughts across the Southwest and making farmers fallow unprecedented amounts of land. Fish aren’t migrating in predictable patterns because of warming water temperatures. Soils lack nutrition from years of tough farming practices making crops harder to grow each year.
Organizations are working on creating metrics for biodiversity and nature that retroactively correctly value those ecosystems and thus encourage greater uptake and attention from businesses. It’s easier for sustainability actions and programs to get leadership buy in and thus off the ground when there are quantifiable measurements, clear goals and hard numbers — something that will be more nuanced for nature.
"It’s the first sector that needs to go to net zero and the last to get guidance," said Stevenson.
The Science Based Targets Initiative’s Forests, Land and Agriculture Guidance (FLAG) launched just last year to help companies set targets for land-based emissions. But this framework was really just a stepping stone to an entire Science Based Targets for Nature (SBTN), the nature counterpart to the SBTi that focuses on cutting emissions to keep to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
In December at the Convention on Biological Diversity (known as Biodiversity COP15), organizations agreed on the global commitments for nature called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework , analogous to the 1.5C degrees of warming for climate. However, unlike the climate commitment, it isn’t just a number to work toward, but 23 qualitative statements that include: "To bring the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity, close to zero by 2030"; "Ensure that by 2030 at least 30 percent of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration or conservation"; and "Ensure urgent management actions to halt human induced extinction of known threatened species and for the recovery and conservation of species."
Stevenson praised the commitment’s clear cutoff year of 2020, something the climate target doesn’t have. But she also noted that nature is a wholly different beast from climate.
"Traditional climate has always been about reductions," Stevenson said. "With the nature targets, we also need to have this positive contribution because we have to recover."
The best way Stevenson has gotten companies to act on nature is to show them where their dependencies lie in their supply shed and when they will reach a tipping point when that supply starts to dwindle.
So not only do companies need to avoid and reduce the drivers of nature loss, but they also need to work to restore what has already disappeared — a new frontier.
Collecting data on nature requires much more from companies than measuring their climate impacts. Carbon emissions measurement can be done on a computer with a calculator — multiplying an emissions factor by the number of emissions. Nature and biodiversity measurements are more analog and more qualitative.
"This is the first time companies are really having to collect spatial data on their land," Stevenson said. "The data has a latitude and longitude, and that is the big change for companies."
Basically, the carbon data and the biodiversity data for forests, land and agriculture are tied to a place and therefore have to be collected on the ground. And secondly, the global qualitative commitments for nature also have to be translated into quantitative numbers corporations can track.
For example, rehabilitating soil becomes "how many tons of carbon are you storing in the ground at a farm in Montana compared with a forest in California?" Protecting nature is "exactly how many species of bird are on a nature preserve on P&G land in Modesto?" How much water flow does this basin in Washington need to allow natural processes to keep running? It’s not all one atmosphere as it is with carbon emissions where emissions from any location end up in the same air. According to Stevenson, companies will need to become more sophisticated about traceability through their supply chain.
The best way Stevenson has gotten companies to act on nature is to show them where their dependencies lie in their supply shed and when they will reach a tipping point when that supply starts to dwindle. According to Stevenson, that’s when companies wake up to take action to protect their resources. But they still need metrics and guidance, and WWF is working on them including the FLAG Science Based Target Setting Guidance. In October, SBTi closed a public comment period on its freshwater methods for the SBTN and is working on the frameworks for the water and land guidance and targets in SBTN that will be published in the first quarter of 2023.
But Stevenson doesn’t want companies to wait until then.
"I'm prioritizing action over perfect measurement," Stevenson said, citing pilot programs and funneling money into nature conservation projects.