The Business Case for Conservation

09/27/2016
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By Keith Tuffley and Jane Lawton

How can companies, who too often are responsible for the most damaging threats to the environment, become part of the solutions for conserving our natural world and resources? This was a key question arising from the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii and the Our Ocean conference, held in Washington DC.

The conservation of nature and the sustainable use of natural resources have until now been regarded as the realm of scientists, conservation experts and NGOs. But the issues before us – rapidly increasing loss of precious biodiversity, plundered natural resources, debates over sustainable and equitable land use, and unprecedented threats to marine ecosystems – are far too large and too important to effectively manage without also engaging business as a key partner.

It is abundantly clear that all sectors must work together to devise solutions to these challenges. Companies have the resources, technologies and expertise needed to help tip the scales toward sustainability. And it is becoming increasingly clear that this will be in the best interests of business in the long term; there is simply no business case to be made for exhausting the natural resources which are the foundation of all economic activity, and on which all life depends.

In the past two years we’ve seen business take a leading role in the fight against climate change, transforming their business operations and driving clean energy demand. But climate, while critical, is only one in a number of intricately interrelated systems that allow human life on Earth to thrive. Each of our planetary systems impacts and responds to the others. In the fight against climate change, we must also protect our precious land and oceans and the diverse plant and animal life they support.

This can seem a daunting journey for companies, which will need to expand on efforts to mitigate their own contributions to climate change, and broaden their focus to ensure they are having a positive rather than negative impact on ecosystems. But it is critically important. We will never win the fight against climate change unless we also conserve the living world – the myriad species that make up the ecosystems which in turn provide critical life support services to us all.

The B Team recently had the opportunity to be part of the IUCN World Conservation Congress which took place in Hawaii. This global event, held only once every four years, brought together more than 9,000 representatives from governments, NGOs and businesses from around the world to discuss solutions for conserving nature. From the opening sessions of the Congress onwards, almost all speakers underlined the urgency of the situation, and the critical importance of bringing more business leaders to this conversation, building the business case for protecting nature, and providing them with effective tools to do so. A number of tools were showcased, like the Natural Capital Protocol, launched earlier this year, which helps companies factor their impacts and dependencies on nature into board level decision making. An exciting new coalition to scale private conservation investment by bringing together investors and financial institutions with in-country partners was also announced.

This month, we also attended the Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the State Department and Senator John Kerry. During a panel moderated by Keith Tuffley philanthropic commitments of more than $1 billion were made for the conservation and protection of the Ocean, and more than $3.5 billion was committed over the course of the conference. Philanthropic dollars at this scale will help to unlock private sector investment to accelerate progress. But there is no question that more solutions, tools and imagination to scale conservation efforts by business are needed. It is time to move beyond a conversation about how important nature is to the regulations and incentives that will actually help conserve it.

In 2014, only 3% of the ocean, and 15.4% of land was formally protected. Leading conservationist E.O. Wilson has suggested that the only way to avoid the mass extinction of species, including our own, will be to set aside 50% of the planet ‘for nature’. This will involve preserving large areas of remaining intact habitat and corridors of wilderness throughout the world from human intervention. Some progress toward this was made at the IUCN congress, with a motion passed to call on nations to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030, a goal that was bolstered by President Obama’s announcement on the eve of the congress that the Hawaiian Marine Reserve Papahānaumokuākea will be expanded to 582,578 square miles, making it the largest marine protected area in the world.

What the numbers and percentages of total protected areas should be will continue to be debated. But what is unequivocal is that the human footprint cannot continue to grow without dangerous consequences for our planet. As business leaders we must look at how we can scale back and realise efficiencies within the existing footprint of our operations, while producing enough to support a growing global population, and fairly distributing the benefits from nature to all. This is no small challenge. It will take imagination, resolve and collaboration. But it is the challenge we must overcome if we are to ensure a future for us all.

Photo by David Poore
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