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How to build a nature-positive business

By Christopher Caldwell

Aug 28 2023 · 4 min read

Illuminem Voices
Biodiversity · Nature · Environmental Sustainability

This will be the decade of biodiversity.

That was the contention of my last article, which argued that climate will make way for conservation over the next few years, post-Montreal Agreement. This is the next big opportunity for environmentally-conscious leaders.

But what does that look like in practise – how can your business start to become not just carbon-neutral, but nature-positive? After all, pursuing decarbonisation at the cost of biodiversity is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Despite the challenges, clean energy can be developed relatively sustainably, minimising negative impacts on ecosystems; and the core principles hold whatever your sector. Here is one four-pronged approach.

Four steps for nature-positive business

  1. Assessment. In our sector, the most critical step in creating nature-positive energy projects is choosing the right location. No matter how many gigawatts of green power your installation might produce, if it is built in the middle of a highly vulnerable ecosystem or area of outstanding natural beauty then it may well do more harm than good. Environmental studies are a critical function of the planning stage and must be given due weight. Once you have the right location, follow up with more granular environmental impact assessments. No project can be 100% harmless; evaluating the ecological impacts of the project (and supply chains) across its life cycle against a range of biodiversity measures will give you the data to take effective action.
  2. Engagement. Whatever the title deed may say, a place never simply ‘belongs’ to a legal owner. All manner of stakeholders – local communities, suppliers, neighbouring landowners, conservation organisations, local government and academic researchers – will have a vested interest in the site and deserve a role. However expert your team, there will be knowledge and skills amongst these stakeholders that can enrich your biodiversity strategy. Local knowledge and memory is a powerful resource for identifying hotspots, contextualising ecological change over time, and supporting endangered species. Furthermore, ecosystem boundaries don’t respect land registry red-lines, and many biodiversity strategies only work in cooperation with local communities. 
  3. Active restoration. Once an asset is operating, we work to regenerate and enhance the habitat as much as possible. This might involve replanting native vegetation, creating and protecting wildlife corridors, sourcing sustainable inputs, and implementing asset management techniques to support local biodiversity. There are best-practise resources available here, and they are worth seeking out, because well-meaning assumptions (such as planting wildflowers) may be counter-productive in some contexts. For example, check out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and Irish Solar Energy Association’s guide to pollinator friendly wind farm and solar farm management.
  4. Supporting innovation. The final step is to pay it forward, by helping improve our collective knowledge and practise around biodiversity. This might involve participating in trials and experiments, providing access and data to academics and charities, or sponsoring research and innovation.

Wanted: more policy

Businesses large and small can be proactive on biodiversity. But the scale of the challenge is immense, and the government needs to step in and play more of a role. 

One policy I would like to see is mandatory biodiversity reporting and disclosure. This has been so impactful in the climate change arena, as carbon accounting, ESG scoring and the TCFD have brought so much focus and action to corporate decarbonisation efforts. Now that we have our Paris-equivalent macro target of 30x30 courtesy of the Montreal Protocol, we need the standards and metrics to drive progress at the micro level too.

A reporting framework could include biodiversity footprint assessments; risk management audits; explicit biodiversity targets; and measures to track performance. All of these could be included in annual reports, making it a key part of a firm’s overall performance evaluation. It would also allow investors and financial institutions to compare biodiversity performance in a standardised fashion across different sectors and firms, encouraging the development of nature-positive investment and lending strategies. 

An invitation for the meantime

Ultimately we will need some radical, systemic policy shifts to really reverse our extinction curve. We are seeing policy start to wake up in some areas, such as the UK’s post-Brexit farm subsidy regime which will reward farmers with £2.4bn a year for up to 280 different actions to promote biodiversity. But they remain uncommon, uncoordinated and nowhere near enough to meet the scale of the challenge. 

2022 saw some efforts at genuinely wide-reaching climate policy at last, in the shape of the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s carbon border adjustment scheme. Hopefully, the coming decade of biodiversity will see similar efforts appear in time. 

Until then, it is down to us as individual leaders to take responsibility on ourselves. Nature-positive business is a fast-growing world, with much that can be done. Come join in.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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