Why nature is the next frontier for sustainable business

Energy

It has been encouraging to see company and government commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions coming thick and fast in recent months, even despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes announcements from corporate giants Facebook, Uber and Amazon. America’s Pledge has just revealed that U.S. businesses, states and cities accelerated their action on climate in 2020.

Businesses are increasingly seeing that climate action is not only the right thing to do but it brings material benefits such as increased investment, improved reputation and overall competitive advantage. For example, investor BlackRock is asking that by the end of 2020, companies issue reports aligned with the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

However, climate action alone is no longer enough to fend off the multiple environmental crises that our planet is facing. Nature — by which I mean the land, biodiversity, water and ocean we all depend on — is reaching a point of no return.

As the World Economic Forum’s recent New Nature Economy report stated, there is no future for business as usual. The loss of nature poses a direct threat to economic activities currently responsible for generating over half of GDP.

Since 2015, companies have been able to use science to ensure their efforts to tackle climate change are sufficiently ambitious. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was set up to facilitate this — to enable companies to ensure their efforts are “at least enough.” The corporate world has embraced this, using the SBTi methods and resources available to help them set and validate their climate targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 1,000 companies are signed up, along with spin-off platforms such as the recently launched SME Climate Hub, which will help companies tackle their challenging Scope 3 emissions, particularly within their supply chains.

What does this all mean for nature? While these efforts to tackle climate change can have some positive impacts on reducing nature loss to some extent, they are nowhere near enough and can create unintended consequences. Companies need to look holistically at all their impacts and dependencies on both climate and nature. We need to halve emissions by 2030, and we need to reverse nature loss. Neither is possible without the other.

The interim targets provided in the guidance give companies direction they can align with now, across land use, freshwater use, climate impact and ecosystem regeneration.

But when it comes to tackling nature loss, it is currently difficult for companies to know where to start or prioritize efforts. Until now there hasn’t been a framework that ties them together.

The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) was formed to provide this. It is comprised of more than 45 organizations working together to provide science-based targets for companies and cities. It builds on the momentum of the SBTi to enable companies to set targets beyond climate. It is part of the Global Commons Alliance which aims to create the world’s most powerful network to scale action to protect the planet.

Now, the organization has published its first consensus guidance for companies on how to restore balance to the global commons by operating within Earth’s limits while meeting society’s needs. The guidance has been reviewed by 65 people from businesses, consultancies, NGOs and academic institutions. Our 14 business reviewers included representatives from Mars, Unilever and Kering — all of which are keen to remain involved with the SBTN and use the guidance in their own organizations. 

Companies can use the guidance to help understand how to assess, prioritize, measure, address and track their impacts and dependencies on nature in line with science. In addressing their impacts and dependencies. It introduces an action framework that companies can follow to avoid future impacts, reduce current impacts, regenerate and restore ecosystems, alongside working to transform the systems in which they are embedded.

The interim targets provided in the guidance give companies direction they can align with now, across land use, freshwater use, climate impact and ecosystem regeneration. The resource was developed to consolidate and build on multiple existing efforts companies are already involved in to protect nature rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

For example, they already can set targets to cut their emissions through the Science Based Targets initiative. For land use change targets, specifically deforestation and conversion, we signpost to the Accountability Framework Initiative. For water quantity and quality targets, the guidance directs companies to use contextual targets for water. For ecosystem integrity, specifically on working lands, the guidance recommends using regenerative agricultural practices in line with the European Commission.

The guidance is also aligned with global frameworks including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to enable companies to consider their impacts on people in the land and seascapes where they operate. The goal is to engage with businesses to develop and refine this guidance in the coming months to ensure it is as easy to use and effective as possible.

For companies, the main nature-related risk is inaction. Now is the time to get started as some steps required to prepare for science-based target setting can take time to do well. The future of all life on Earth depends on us fundamentally changing our relationship with nature now and building an equitable, nature-positive, net-zero carbon future. We urge all companies to get involved and join us on this journey.

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