As environmentalists have been trying to tell corporations for decades, nature conservation must become an issue of concern for business. It has to matter. We live on a finite planet, on interconnected oceans and continents, linked by watersheds, airsheds, jet streams, and migration corridors. A tiny songbird trilling in Stanley Park this month will be down in southern Mexico by winter time. The proverbial butterfly flaps its wings in Hokkaido and a hurricane occurs in the Gulf of Mexico. We are part of nature, yet by our lack of stewardship we are destroying the very Earth that supports us. This is unsustainable.
A new Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Business report has just confirmed that biological diversity matters, so perhaps now more people will sit up and take notice, although as yet only one in five companies see it as a strategic issue. “Measure what matters” has always been part of the corporate mantra and usually nature is so far off the list of what counts that it elicits blank stares when mentioned.
This could be about to change. According to the UN-sponsored report, “corporations which fail to make biodiversity part of their business plan are going to be increasingly out of step with the market place”. A majority of worldwide consumers are aware of biodiversity loss and over 80 percent surveyed said “they would stop buying products from companies that disregard ethical considerations in their sourcing practices”. Furthermore, “smart business leaders realize that integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services in their value chains can generate substantial cost savings and new revenues, as well as improved business reputation and license to operate”.
Increasingly, consumers and investors are scared and concerned at the loss of wildlife and nature that they see documented on the TV screens every day and want to do something about it. They are voting with their wallets. In terms of awareness, Europeans and North Americans lag behind countries like Brazil, ground zero for biodiversity loss. Ninety percent of Brazilians surveyed were aware of the problem.
The report cannot come soon enough for the disastrous declines in biodiversity around the world. Yet another emerging UN study has estimated the total negative environmental impact of 3,000 of the world’s top listed companies at around US$2.2 trillion annually. We need to urgently move beyond “no net loss”, a concept that has been erratically applied here in Canada, and even beyond “ecological neutrality”, to a position of “net positive impact”.
In contrast to the endless complaint that jobs will be lost if the environment is protected, businesses that embrace biodiversity conservation are going to see their economic status increase rather than decline. Certified agricultural products, once dismissed as a fad, have grown to a market of over US$40 billion in 2008 and are projected to reach US$210 billion by 2020. Some larger corporations have sensed the shift in public thinking and have already made commitments. Mining giant Rio Tinto, for example, has signed on to “net positive impact” on biodiversity by applying compensation offsets. However, compensation alone will not bring us back from the ecosystem collapses we face; conserving biodiversity and maintaining existing ecosystem services, like healthy water, air, and agricultural land, are absolutely key.
This is where British Columbia must stand firm. We have the greatest biodiversity in Canada and, together with Alaska, we are a last refuge for many large animals that have been extirpated across North America. Our wilderness lands could be attractive places for compensation offsets, but we must also maintain the value of coastal and interior ecosystems in the southern, developed part of the province. The reckless way in which agricultural land is being destroyed in the lower Fraser valley and delta and the irresponsible handling of our native salmon stocks are examples of the old way of thinking about business and the environment. It is time for responsible leaders to step up to the plate and engage with the new, ecological way of doing business.
Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.