Business Engagement: Towards a Global Public-Private Deal for Nature?

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The business community – along with governments and other stakeholders – urgently needs to take bold action to protect and restore nature. Business engagement for biodiversity, and in the CBD COPs processes, has been limited. However, the forthcoming COP 15 in China marks a unique opportunity for business to strengthen its engagement, raise its voice and commit to bolder action on biodiversity.

The timing is urgent for businesses to act to preserve and restore biodiversity. As stated by Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO and chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, “business needs to come together now, as [it] did for the Paris Climate Summit, to ensure that we collectively protect that which makes our very existence possible”.

So far, the corporate response to the problem has been lacking. All businesses, in all sectors, depend on biodiversity and have an impact on it – as it underpins economies, livelihoods, health, and quality of life. However, the complex and systemic nature of the topic makes it difficult for companies to precisely determine their dependencies and their footprint on nature. Biodiversity loss cannot be addressed in isolation, as it shares interconnections and interdependencies with other issues across multiple areas of social and economic development: from tackling hunger and water scarcity, to improving infrastructure and creating sustainable livelihoods. Recognising the systemic nature of the problem is a key first step towards addressing it. COP 15 in Kunming marks a unique opportunity for business to strengthen its engagement in the international process and to demonstrate to government that safeguarding nature makes economic sense and needs to be integrated into decision-making in all economic sectors.

Assessing the Shortcomings of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020

Alongside the better-known Conferences of Parties (COPs) on climate change, the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) also convenes COPs on biodiversity every two years. The next one, COP 15, is scheduled to happen in the final quarter of 2020 in China. The 196 governments that have ratified the multilateral treaty will gather for what is expected to be a significant milestone in the history of international biodiversity governance: they will hopefully strike a formal agreement – similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change – to reverse nature loss.

COP 15 will also assess the delivery of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, adopted in 2010, at COP 10 in Nagoya, Japan. The strategic plan included the Aichi Biodiversity Targets: 20 time-bound, measurable targets to be met by 2020, organized along five strategic goals. The targets include the goal of conserving at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water habitats and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. They are often seen as too modest in scale to save global biodiversity, and even so, most of them are not on track to be achieved by 2020, as declared by COP 14.

This confirms the urgent need for cross-sector, multi-stakeholder action of unprecedented magnitude to change the current trajectory of human life on Earth “from self-extinction, to survival and thriving together, with all the ecosystems and forms of life on Earth”, as stated by the Sharm El-Sheikh to Beijing Action Agenda for Nature and People.

COP 15 faces a great challenge and opportunity, as it will be much more complex to agree on a globally recognized overarching target for biodiversity as it was for the Paris climate targets: there is no obvious equivalent to the 1.5C warming limit for biodiversity.

The role of business in the Convention for Biological Diversity needs to grow by 2020

The role of business in this process needs to get bigger than ever before – a meeting of this importance will only have an impact if it does not remain the sole concern of governments. As an example, ahead of COP21, the momentum built for climate was accompanied by significant commitments by private companies and local authorities, many of which are still spurring action today and taking over from national governments. The post-2020 global biodiversity framework will need to recognize the role the private sector can play in halting biodiversity loss and facilitate private sector engagement in its design and implementation.

The role of business was first officially recognized by the Convention’s Parties in Curitiba (Brazil), in 2006, at COP 8, a few years before the Aichi targets were adopted.

Business engagement in the implementation of the CBD has been promoted since, and the secretariat has encouraged businesses to “adopt practices and strategies that contribute to achieving the goals and objectives of the Convention and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets”. However, the goals have been perceived by many businesses as “having been written by Governments for Governments, and so have failed to resonate with and inspire action from the private sector”. One illustration of this fact is the difference in business uptake between the Aichi targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals: the latter have clearly captured the attention of companies, having been referred to and reflected and into numerous corporate sustainability strategies over the past years. The Aichi targets are far from having had the same impact.

To address this issue, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has suggested reframing the international biodiversity goals into corporate biodiversity goals. For instance, translating Strategic Goal A “Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society” into “Embed biodiversity into decision-making”. Related business actions might include raising awareness about biodiversity internally, embedding biodiversity in corporate strategy, and adopting and implementing voluntary certification schemes and industry standards.

A Global Business Movement for Biodiversity for 2020

The time for business action for biodiversity is now, and COP 15 in 2020 marks a critical opportunity to push efforts further and build global momentum around the issue. Although the post-2020 framework can be improved to facilitate business action, companies must proactively take bolder biodiversity-related commitments, seeking collaboration with industry peers and other stakeholders to increase impact. Like many businesses did a few years ago around the Paris Agreement, they are expected to raise their voice and strengthen their commitments next year in China.

A group of leading climate, business and nature bodies – including the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), WWF, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) – has launched in July 2019 an initiative called Business for Nature, urging firms around the world to join together to better protect the world’s plants and animals. Announced at the WEF Annual Meetings of New Champions in China, and the Trondheim Biodiversity Conferences in Norway, this global coalition aims at “elevating a business call for comprehensive action to reverse nature loss and restore the planet’s vital natural systems” and encouraging governments and other stakeholders to take bolder collective action. Business for Nature will convey a “united business voice” at next year’s vital international negotiation, to demonstrate that the safeguarding of nature makes economic sense, as well as being a moral imperative.

A Global Public-Private Deal for Nature, engaging government, industry and other non-state actors, has the potential to become an unparalleled achievement in the history of conservation. In the words of the CBD’s executive secretary Cristiana Pasca Palmer, such a deal could finally help to bend the curve of biodiversity loss and defend “the essential infrastructure that supports life on Earth and human development”.

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