How businesses can help prevent the ‘sixth extinction’


By Jason Knights

December 19, 2022

As the UN COP15 Biodiversity Conference draws to a close in Montreal, global governments have set ambitious targets to protect 30% of land by 2030, in order to prevent the irreversible loss of our natural world. Delivering this will not be easy.

Despite the stark reality facing the world, governments’ progress in stopping biodiversity loss so far has been abysmal. Since world leaders set 20 targets on biodiversity at the 2010 biodiversity summit in Japan, none have been hit. The planet now needs urgent help, and there is one well-resourced and willing community that government hasn’t yet included as part of the solution. Businesses with innovative people and big budgets, owning or operating large swathes of land, could offer the help needed.

Where we are now

Dubbed by some the “sixth extinction,” the loss of biodiversity creates stark challenges. Globally, biodiversity now stands at 75% of preindustrial levels, well below the 90% average considered to be the safe limit to maintain important ecological processes. One such process, pollination of plants, is fully reliant on specific species of insects. The chocolate midge is the appropriately named pollinator of the cacao plant, but in West Africa, populations have declined so much that workers have been forced to pollinate plants by hand.

As a result of direct human activity, pollution, and climate change, 1 million of today’s plant and animal species face extinction by 2040. But there is some good news. The World Economic Forum claims that around 80% of threatened and near-threatened species could be saved if we reduced pressure on biodiversity caused by food, land, and ocean use, infrastructure, construction, energy and mining.

Partnering for action

When governments look for ways to engage the business community, they would be well served to draw inspiration from the rapid response collaborations during the pandemic. As the world rapidly switched to remote working and learning, 6% of UK households lacked reliable internet access. In response, Dell Technologies partnered with the government to launch the Digital Inclusion Impact Group, utilizing on-the-ground insight from the government and the resources of big tech, including donating devices to schools and homes.

The urgency with which solutions were developed during the pandemic should be applied to the biodiversity crisis too. Government could set up a similar impact group for biodiversity and invite contributions from the tech community to, for example, track DNA in nature and quantify biodiversity recovery similar to Nature Metrics, or welcome the resources from investors who have the budget to help fund biodiversity projects. The Nature Action 100 Group, launched during COP15 and comprised of 11 high profile investors including AXA and BNP Paribas, are identifying 100 companies that are important to the goal of reversing biodiversity loss. This is a ready-made group of powerful and impactful businesses that the government should consider approaching for partnerships. 

According to our own research conducted with over 2,000 business leaders, businesses have a significant appetite to play a more direct role. More than four in five say biodiversity is personally very important to them and 84% say that big businesses have the resources to make a positive impact on biodiversity loss. It also makes sound business sense: According to BCG, biodiversity creates economic value worth more than $150 trillion annually—which could all disappear if we don’t get this right.

How businesses can help prevent the ‘sixth extinction’

In the UK, some private businesses that own large areas of land are beginning to recognise their responsibility to preserve biodiversity. Southern Water has made specific biodiversity commitments beyond just maintaining clean waterways and environments for bird species. It now prevents the spread of invasive non-native species and, where possible, actively removes them. M&S has also worked with the Wildlife Trusts to create and improve space for nature on their farms.

Instead of working independently, businesses should think about working in partnership with regional governments in their local community who can better coordinate efforts through Local Nature Recovery Networks to restore habitats or recover threatened plants or animals.

Utilizing the innovation and technology from business will be crucial—we have a $5.2 trillion global tech sector that governments should be leveraging. We’re already looking at our own tool to digitize biodiversity in the UK—creating a visual map highlighting the areas where biodiversity has recovered and partnering with other organizations to join up those pockets for better overall impact. Another interesting global technology project is the Spatial Planning for Area Conservation in Response to Climate Change (SPARC) which harnesses data to estimate species movements due to climate change. This aims to provide information that can help countries plan more effectively for conserved areas considering the effects of climate change and its resulting impact on biodiversity.

Looking down from the canopy

There is already a willingness to help from business, even if it is in the early stages. Three hundred businesses, who are measuring their own impact on nature, have urged world leaders to make other companies publish their impact on biodiversity by 2030, which will be important to understand the depth of the problem and how to fix it. Indeed, one of the most important tools to tackle biodiversity loss is measurement—how do you make sure that the biodiversity you leave behind is in a better state than when you found it?

Property companies in the UK nowhave to demonstrate a 10% improvement or “biodiversity net gain” for all new builds, a legal first. To help this, the UK government’s adviser on the natural environment launched the biodiversity metric. While this currently only applies to property companies, businesses could voluntarily use similar methods to understand biodiversity on the sites they own and the wider impact biodiversity loss is having on land across the UK.

As well as creating more laws for businesses to improve biodiversity, central governments can help facilitate partnerships between local government and community businesses to improve biodiversity. This can take the form of jointly funded local projects, such as purchasing areas of degraded land for biodiversity, or volunteering staff time for biodiversity initiatives.

Future growth

The challenge of biodiversity loss goes hand in hand with climate change and creates one of the biggest existential challenges that humanity has ever faced. However, there is material reward for getting things right as well as peace of mind. The Nature Economy report by the World Economic Forum found that making progress on protecting biodiversity could provide annual business opportunities worth $10 trillion. These could create 395 million jobs by 2030 and make supply chains and financial markets more resilient to future shocks.

The economic case for protecting biodiversity and our planet’s natural assets is clear. Business is beginning to wake up to this and a small movement for change is building. We’ve seen some of the early examples are there, they now need to be explored in more depth and more widely. it’s now the job of governments to join the dots and champion the role of business to tackle global biodiversity loss.

Jason Knights is the managing director of Ground Control