enough hollow ambitions it's time for solid action
If anything, Kitty van der Heijden believes the biodiversity crisis is even more urgent than the climate crisis. If we don’t act soon, she sees the consequences for the planet and everything living on it as nothing short of catastrophic. "It starts by investment officers realizing that every decision they take could have a negative impact on biodiversity."
A much-cited article in Nature has estimated the global economic value of biodiversity at some US$33 trillion a year, close to the combined GDPs of the US and China. “And yet,” says Kitty van der Heijden, Director General International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “biodiversity is scarcely on the radar of the general public. Most politicians still fail to grasp that this is about more than just saving rhinos and pandas. A multitude of ‘invisible’ species are being wiped out on an almost daily basis. If we continue down this road, it will soon start having a devastating effect on our food chains and economies.”
“Most politicians still fail to grasp that biodiversity is about more than saving rhinos”
To illustrate just how fragile biodiverse ecosystems are, Kitty cites a simple example from many years ago in Uganda. Children in a particular community were becoming malnourished and researchers couldn’t understand why. Until they found what back then was considered a surprising chain of events. Under Idi Amin, the slaughter of wildlife, including hippos, had risen considerably. Hippo dung is the staple diet of certain fish species on which that community depended. As a result, they now had a severe lack of certain key proteins in their diet, which led to malnutrition amongst children. “This very simple case neatly illustrates the domino effect of biodiversity loss and the unintended consequences of how mankind interacts with nature. It’s not just economically important: our fundamental wellbeing and health are at stake. And finally, of course, it’s nearly always the poorest who face the highest risk and suffer the greatest negative impact.”
Where there’s a will… Not entirely coincidentally, Kitty sees that hand-in-hand with the lack of public awareness of the biodiversity problem is a widespread lack of political willingness to combat it. However, worldwide awareness of the need to address climate change does now exist and ironically, it is this that gives Kitty cause for at least a little optimism. “As your readers know, biodiversity and climate change are inextricably linked. Deforestation, for example, leads to more CO2 emissions and a massive loss of species. Perhaps that link can be leveraged to work in our favour. A June 2021 joint IPBES-IPCC report on Biodiversity & Climate Change found that nature hosts some 37% of the potential climate mitigation needed to stay below the 2°C target up to 2030. So if we can raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity in fighting climate change, it may concentrate minds, and we can channel the momentum now behind combatting climate change to also combat biodiversity loss and protect nature.”
“Biodiversity loss isn’t the ‘fault’ of the countries where it occurs. Every one of us who benefits from the global supply chains that drive biodiversity loss is also to ‘blame’”
The ties that bind Given the need for what Kitty calls ‘urgent and immediate action’, what does she hope to see come out of the October 2021 COP15 on biodiversity in Kunming, China? “I hope we can get beyond ambitions. We already have ambitious targets that formulate what needs to done. What we now need is a binding biodiversity framework with a focus on adequate reporting, accountability and evaluation mechanisms.” This would mean countries agreeing on how to measure success and what the drivers are to halting biodiversity loss which, as Kitty points out, is an extremely complex issue. “One example: loss of biodiversity isn’t only the ‘fault’ of the countries where it occurs. It’s often driven by global supply chains and everyone — countries, companies, consumers — who are part of, or benefit from, such a supply chain is also to ‘blame’. This means stopping deforestation in Indonesia or (illegal) mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t solely the responsibility of those countries, and identifying what needs to be done and who’s responsible for doing it requires global collaboration. All of this makes COP 15 a high-stakes opportunity to work towards global action and, above all, sign binding agreements. However, there are a number of large countries who currently don’t want to sign anything binding. So we’ll have to see how far we get.”
"What makes the challenge even tougher," continues Kitty, is that finding a solution isn’t just the duty of governments. “We’ll only get this done with the requisite speed and urgency if we involve the financial and private sectors. To be achieved, whatever goals we put in the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) declaration, will need the cooperation of the private sector, who run the global supply chains, and the financial sector, who fund them. Moreover, governments can only regulate their own countries. They can’t regulate how businesses operate globally, or what products consumers want and how much importance we place by how they’re sourced.”
“Biodiversity isn’t just economically important. Our fundamental wellbeing and health are at stake”
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entered into force on 29 December 1993. It has 3 main objectives:
1. The conservation of biological diversity 2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity 3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources
Kitty feels this sort of multiple collaboration calls for a different mentality. “As a global community, we need integral thinking about who must be at the table and who’s responsible for what. And that’s politically divisive and challenging, so there’s no guarantee we’ll achieve it.” It also won’t happen by itself. “The private sector is capable of developing supply chains that can help build a sustainable future. But as many companies themselves acknowledge, voluntary rules aren’t working. Which is why the Dutch government is committed to getting through EU legislation on how the private sector must operate in areas like human and worker’s rights, but also nature, biodiversity and ecosystems.” Kitty sees more initiatives that could form the green shoots on biodiversity action. The DNB (Dutch Central Bank) is leading a working partnership involving government and the financial sector, including FMO, that is looking into how you factor the value of biodiversity into your balance sheet. “While climate change itself is a huge challenge, evaluating it in an accounting sense is relatively straightforward: you measure it in terms of greenhouse gases (methane and CO2). But biodiversity loss is a local problem, effecting species differently in diverse circumstances, hydroclimatic zones, etc. So developing a global unit of account for biodiversity, and working that into your financials, is way more difficult.” Another example is the EU Green Taxonomy, currently working its way through the bureaucratic system, that will oblige the financial sector to apply much stricter due diligence regarding the green impact of what they fund.
Less grey, more green Because nature’s value is generally taken for granted, and its economic value is not incorporated into financial decision-making, a central challenge to combatting biodiversity loss is developing ways to make finance start working for nature, not against it. Kitty believes this can be done and cites two simple examples from places where she has herself lived and worked. First, building with nature. Vietnam’s Mekong valley region is very vulnerable to salt intrusion due to climate change and rising sea levels. “The traditional Western solution would be: build a concrete dyke. Such ‘grey infrastructure’ can be highly effective, but it’s also highly carbonated. A green alternative, using a nature-based solution, is using mangroves. They’re cost-efficient, give very good storm protection and are a breeding ground for many local fish species: win, win, win.”
The second example is from Tanzania. Turbidity in Dar-es-Salaam’s two water filtration plants was increasing over time. This meant the filtration systems couldn’t cope and the plants were regularly out of service, leading to drinking water shortages. “Instead of the classic Western answer of building a new filtration plant, researchers investigated the cause of the higher turbidity and found mass deforestation taking place upstream, which in the monsoon season meant excessive water turbidity. So they started to reforest those areas: no infrastructure work, no big capital outlays, plus the huge positive side effect of restoring biodiversity.” Such solutions are currently just not in our thinking, Kitty argues, but the opportunities to employ them are countless and the Netherlands is a true innovator in this respect.
“Investors like FMO and others need to start looking for green alternatives like this to traditional grey infrastructure solutions”
Science-based, economically smart Kitty feels the vital first step towards mainstreaming biodiversity into investment decisions the way we already do with CO2 emissions is to set a baseline, so we can measure whether and how much we’re improving. She points to science-based targets. Developed by WWF, the World Resources Institute and others, science-based targets show companies how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to play their fair part in limiting global warming to 1.50. “As I’ve said, measuring biodiversity is far more complex than measuring climate change. Nevertheless, we need to develop a similar biodiversity protocol that organizations can integrate into their investment decisions. But it starts by investment officers realizing that every decision they take could have a negative impact on biodiversity.”
At the same time, Kitty is keen to avoid any suggestion that investing in nature in this way is a ‘sacrifice’ we must make to help save the planet. “Investing in nature is an economically rational decision. Take degraded lands. 60% of degraded lands in Africa are potentially food-productive. If you restore them — not necessarily to a pristine state but with the use of scrubs or grasses — you’re restoring the water-retention capacity of farms and making them far more productive, and contributing positively to biodiversity and climate change. But currently, instead of seeing the positive impact on nature of examples like this, we totally ignore nature as a factor. And we do that at our peril.”
Anyone still unconvinced by Kitty’s heartfelt call-to-action might consider the following statistic: research suggests that if we continue with current rates of biodiversity-loss many wealthy economies, which depend heavily on imports, are likely to see their GDP shrink 10% over the next three decades. Food for thought.
And finally, the perennial question of the engaged citizen: ‘what can I do?’ Many of the things you do to address climate change will also help biodiversity:
eat local, buy local, buy less, buy fair trade
become aware of your decisions
get politically active
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