Jon Hutton is Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute he spoke to Rob Cameron, Managing Partner at SustainAbility.
RC: Tell me about the Luc Hoffmann Institute
JH: The Institute was established in 2012 by WWF International and the MAVA Foundation and we have spent the last few years examining how to move nature conservation forward and into the mainstream of public policy. We have recently refocused more tightly on incubation to find the new ideas that are needed to take us to a very different future rather quickly, and to provide the support these need to get traction and grow. Essentially nature conservation today looks very much like it did 100 years ago – in large part a focus on protected areas and species, and while this works and has evolved significantly, we are going to need a lot of new approaches and new tools to meet the scale of current threats.
We feel there is a real shortage of new approaches – essentially nature conservation today looks very much like it did 100 years ago
There has been a collective failure to address biodiversity. Given the importance of biodiversity to our civilisation, how have we allowed this to happen?
We all know in our hearts the problem is that the benefits of nature are all provided largely for free. In the absence of any ownership regimes or regulation, it is not surprising that people use it their advantage: business, individuals, households we all use nature. Everyone knows the what the threat is, the figures, the rate of decline – not necessarily of species through extinction – but their decline in abundance which in many ways is just as scary. The bottom line is that we use nature, the atmosphere, water to fuel our economy and dispose of our wastes, including carbon dioxide, without any cost. We don’t incorporate the true cost of these things in our financial systems.
Biodiversity is a very new term and doesn’t have much cultural traction.
Is there a cultural aspect to this as well as an economic aspect?
This is very strongly a cultural issue. We often use the word biodiversity to describe loss of habitats, whole ecosystems or coral reefs loss and try to get people’s attention – but biodiversity is a very new term and doesn’t seem to have much cultural traction. Then we turn to nature, but it turns out that even nature is not a universal concept. The confusion over language and concepts is a problem, partly of globalisation.
There is a lot that can be done locally, and we need to do more to build on local cultures and concepts.
If you clear up litter on the beach, or clean up a local stream people can be dismissive of those actions, but if it gets people thinking differently about where they live then surely it is a good thing?
The difference from climate is that biodiversity / nature is inherently local. There is a lot that can be done locally, and we need to do more to build on local cultures and concepts.
Another difference is that it is often feels difficult for individuals to do something meaningful on the climate agenda, people feel helpless. But you can clean up pollution in a local river, you can insist on proper enforcement of planning laws and you can do things in gardens. Gardens are an enormous semi-natural habitat and we could do much more to better design them for nature. But we also need an eye to the global.
Two big issues that have escalated recently: plastics and climate change, after years when no-one seemed to pay attention. How can we learn from these shifts to make progress on biodiversity?
In the last month or two we did see an upturn in interest in biodiversity. IPBES executive summary for decisions-makers was published and it got quite a lot of traction. Netflix released its One Planet series with David Attenborough, who has been responsible for the focus on plastics which also heavily plays into this agenda. Then came from nowhere some of these grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion, that started tagging biodiversity onto its usual mantra of dangerous climate change. All happened roughly the same time, so biodiversity did start trending for a little while, but it has fallen back again. Also, in the World Economic Forum’s annual risks report five of top seven issues were essentially around nature and climate. Biodiversity loss was one of those. Clearly companies are beginning to see this as an issue. We are not quite near the tipping point yet, however.
Then came from nowhere some of these grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion, that started tagging biodiversity onto its usual mantra of dangerous climate change.
Can you tell me about Biodiversity Revisited and what you hope to achieve with that project?
It started as part of our thought leadership work and together with a number of colleagues we were questioning how climate change was getting traction but the biodiversity agenda, which is equally important – in some ways more important – is not getting equivalent attention.
Most people do not feel directly affected by climate change, but we do get affected by impact of climate on natural and agricultural ecosystems. Drought or extreme weather events. We are going to see pests in forests, ecosystems drying up. Ecosystems are important for resilience and we can see them changing but still no-one paying attention. We decided to try and open up the box and think about what is wrong with biodiversity – is there something wrong with the concept which means it may never get traction. Is it too imprecise or too technocratic? The idea was to start being more self-reflective. Why isn’t it financially material that wild animal numbers have declined by 63% in the last 20 years?
How do you make these things financially material to a company that doesn’t see itself relying on nature and encourage the corporate sector to have a really good think about what it can do better?
What about the role of business in this?
We work closely with We Mean Business and others and believe that business has been part of the problem and needs to be part of the solution.
Societal change is a process – and nothing much has changed yet, but the forces are building. The biggest challenge is that everyone in society has an interest in fossil fuel companies like BP and Shell doing what they do so well and getting on with it, because it is where most people’s pensions are.
What are your hopes for COP15 in China?
The Conference on Biological Diversity (CBD) has a role to play, it helps governments to align themselves and come to a consensus. However, I suspect the CBD won’t come up with anything massive. What may be more interesting is the work WWF, the World Economic Forum and many others are doing to create a new deal for nature and people – ultimately the only thing that will work is a change in societal values and that won’t come through the CBD.
The New Deal for Nature talks about no net loss as the nature equivalent of the Paris 1.5C Agreement – a simple, clear goal that everyone could rally around. Is “no net loss” progressive enough?
That idea is not new, but it is being incubated by the Luc Hoffmann Institute. Business understands no net loss quite well. But the nature conservation community will need to back off a little from its existing stand as currently it is very sceptical about allowing offsets for biodiversity. We are going to have to be a bit more flexible and give business the tools – so no net loss and a strengthened offsetting framework has some potential. Would be very interesting to see if business can respond.
I am an optimist by nature, but I confess I am beginning to get nervous, the speed of climate change has got me a bit rattled.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I am an optimist by nature, but I confess I am beginning to get nervous, the sheer speed of climate change and the degradation of our natural world has got me a bit rattled.
However, I think that companies are not going to be able to hide over the next 20 years and are going to have to do things they are not used to doing – nature / biodiversity is going to have to be financially material to every company.