Move over, climate: this is the biodiversity decade
Talking about climate change today is easy because it’s everywhere.
20 or 30 years ago – not so much. Back in the 1990s, humans disrupting the fundamental geochemistry of the earth seemed almost impossibly abstract; and if you did understand the concept, it was relegated to a far-away future.
Sadly, that future has now arrived. The heatwaves sweeping the world in recent weeks exemplify the human suffering from climate chaos. The science is clear that these temperatures would have been ‘virtually impossible’ without climate change, which has contributed around 2.5 degrees to recent extremes. What is striking is that public consciousness and media attention has finally caught up.
This is a legacy of all the hard work put in by environmentalists down the years. Public awareness always operates with a lag. Awareness in 2023 reflects the fact that the 2010s was the decade climate change won the argument amongst early adopters.
The climate consciousness juggernaut will continue accelerating, as it must. But for those of us in the vanguard, I predict that the 2020s will centre another crisis: biodiversity.
A new old problem
I’m not going to make the case for why biodiversity matters here – you know it already. If you do want a refresher, check out the summary of the UN/IBPES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The IPCC-equivalent lays out the facts in their terrifying magnitude: global ecosystem health has halved against all baselines; 75% of the earth is significantly altered by human activity, whilst only 3% of the ocean is free from human pressures; rates of species loss are 100x historic averages and accelerating into the sixth mass extinction.
Our problems go far deeper than just carbon, then. But it is carbon that has come to dominate environmentalism in the 21st century, through a combination of urgency, novelty and existential scale. Now it’s time for the climate to give back some space to biodiversity.
There are three forces I see driving this in the 2020s. One is growing cultural awareness and consumer pressure. This has emerged across various themes recently; with pollinators, plastics, and rewilding being prominent in Europe. A more systemic public and media consciousness is beginning to weave these disparate threads into a single tapestry of concern.
From Paris to Montreal
Another is the acceleration of global governance efforts. We are officially in the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Just as the climate was catalysed by Paris in 2015, so biodiversity has a COP process of its own for the 2020s in the shape of the Montreal Agreement signed last December.
Reviewing Montreal would take a whole article in itself. In brief, the 30x30 global target enshrined in the agreement should be seen as a (qualified) success. A 50% goal would have been the real breakthrough, but as with climate, the hope is that targets will ratchet up over time. The general welcome and support from indigenous peoples (who represent 5% of the world’s population, but protect 80% of its biodiversity) is positive, although we must be very careful that subsequent policy empowers rather than imposes. Of course, there were missed opportunities – ‘nature-positive’ could have been the ‘net-zero’ equivalent for the movement, but was left out of the text. Nonetheless, as with Paris, we should celebrate the ambition and use it to hold power to account for funding and implementation. Having 2030 targets will only sharpen minds as the decade wears on.
Finally, I see climate itself as accelerating the focus on biodiversity. For one thing, it has been the single most powerful recruitment campaign for the broader environmental movement, capturing the hearts and minds of younger generations in particular. It is also an education in systemic thinking, and the interconnections between climate and biodiversity are becoming ever better evidenced.
If we are going to solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the biodiversity crisis too, which is what individuals and governments are waking up to. As a result, climate campaigners are increasingly becoming voices for the protection of life more widely, rather than simply carbon monogamists or anthropocentric apocalypse nerds.
The business case of the decade
If the 2020s are to be the decade of biodiversity, where does that leave business leaders? The same place they were in 2010 with respect to climate. The evidence is settled and the necessary direction of travel is clear – all that remains is to decide if you will be a (relatively) early adopter or a laggard.
As with climate change, the business case is compelling. Consumer demand is changing, and developing more regenerative products is the future of competitive advantage. The reputational risk of being on the wrong side of the issue is potentially huge – just ask single-use plastics manufacturers – whilst being seen as a biodiversity leader is a great brand moat. Regulation is heating up, so a proactive approach to audit and target-setting will place you ahead of compliance and legal issues down the line. And it matters across all kinds of stakeholders, from employees looking for values-congruence (and healthy work environments) to investors putting their money where their mandates are.
This is a huge opportunity to get ahead of the next great curve-out in ESG. What that looks like in practise will be the subject of my next article.
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.
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.