Looking for a Nature ‘North Star’ for your company? Halt Deforestation. Now.

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Posted on March 15, 2022 by alainjbvidal

Forest cut down in Germany (Credit: Justus Menke)

The curtain fell a few months ago on Climate COP26 and is reopening this week on Act II of the Biodiversity COP15, with the 24th meeting of the CBD Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA).

Let alone the war in Ukraine, the dominant narrative in the media as well as with environmental policy and actors remains focused on climate mitigation and net zero (emissions), hence the Biodiversity COP, that has been postponed several times due to COVID-19, has remained almost unnoticed.

Yet there is now strong evidence that the climate narrative must be expanded to encompass an as (if not more) urgent concern for the wellbeing of the planet as a whole – our lives depend upon it. 

The safe operating space defined by the planetary boundaries framework over twelve years ago showed more than half of our planet’s life-support processes were under threat or already impaired. Today, the situation is even worse, and there is scientific evidence that entering the “danger zone” represented in orange in the graph below, Earth systems would start changing dramatically, and passing  ‘tipping points’ where some changes could be irreversible. And the latest update on environmental pollutants including pesticides, and other “novel entities” including plastics is that the corresponding planetary boundary has been passed and ‘blown out’.

The latest version of the Planetary Boundaries (Credit: Designed by Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al. 2022 and Steffen et al. 2015)

Even if climate change is climbing on political, social and business agendas, so far many companies are unaware of how much they rely on nature. According to the World Economic Forum, more than half of the world’s GDP – $44 trillion – is dependent on nature and its services. As these “ecosystem services” (climate regulation, water flow regulation, air quality regulation, hazard regulation, pollination, pest control, pollution absorption) continue to decline – at a cost to the global economy of more than $5 trillion a year of which 1.8 trillion is fueled by public subsidies – the risks to business increase. Actually the figures here are so big than it’s even difficult for many to figure out how huge – and indecent – they are.

Furthermore, many business activities contribute to the pressures driving nature loss including land use change, overexploitation of natural resources, and land, water and oceans pollution. The operations of four major value chains—food, energy, infrastructure, and fashion—currently drive more than 90% of man-made pressure on biodiversity.

The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) is developing science-based targets for nature because business-as-usual is no longer an option. Taking action towards a nature positive economy – by preparing to set science-based targets for nature – is not just the “right thing to do”, it’s a commercial and economic imperative. Businesses can start now to shift their business model from destruction and pollution to avoidance, reduction, restoration, regeneration, and resilience.

As companies will be able to set validatable science-based targets for nature from 2023, SBTN encourages them to set ambitious targets now, where methods already exist. It has identified and recently updated interim targets that companies can set today, in line with the best available science and SBTN’s upcoming methods. This set of targets covers the issues of land use, ecosystem conversion, ecosystem integrity, water quality/pollution, and water consumption, as well as science-based targets for climate change mitigation. By setting these targets, companies can avoid and reduce their impacts on nature (including the climate system), contribute toward direct improvements in the health of ecosystems through restoration and regeneration where feasible, and engage into the needed transformation of their business towards nature positive.

It’s the right time for business to act, as both Biodiversity COP15 and Climate COP26 have opened the door more widely for business action and leadership on nature. Last year Business for Nature rallied more than 900 companies with revenues of US$ 4.3 trillion calling on governments at the UN General Assembly to adopt policies now to reverse nature loss in this decade.

Many actors including the most ambitious companies have been asking for a “time bound goal for nature” similar to the 1.5°C for climate, a nature “North Star”. Although it won’t encompass all nature losses, there is a simple goal to start with from companies, which SBTN interim targets start with:


Not in 2030 as world leaders agreed and congratulated themselves on in Glasgow, which was just a ‘remake’ of what they had agreed upon in New York back in 2014.

Indeed science shows that deforestation, and more generally conversion of natural habitats including forests, wetlands, grasslands, and peatlands, should have been halted already 2 years ago, in 2020. An whereas most SDG have 2030 as a target date, SDG15 includes a couple of targets that were supposed to be reached by 2020, namely:

  • Target 15.1 : By 2020, ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements;
  • Target 15.2 : By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally.

Halt deforestation, now : let’s not take changes in regulation and the policy process they imply as a pretext to procrastinate. Despite SDG15, 2020 is probably too fast, too ambitious for countries, and we know policy changes require time.

But companies could go way faster ! We know their objections, as David MacLennan, CEO of Cargill, recently answered to the Time magazine when asked why his company wasn’t eliminating deforestation from its supply chain: “The supply chains in Brazil are very complicated.”

But since when large companies’ transformations have been hampered by complexity? This is the time for ambitious companies to start making a difference. How and where to start?

  • Companies can begin to set science-based targets for nature in 2022. In the meantime, SBTN’s initial guidance for companies provides a framework and tools for companies to understand where and how to focus efforts so both nature and business can thrive together.
  • “Where should we halt deforestation and land conversion?” is a frequent question I have got from companies: my simplest answer is the map below where the green areas represent the 65.5 M km2 of intact lands, i.e. almost half of the land surface, where safeguarding intactness is a precondition to maintain ecosystem functions, nature’s contribution to people and earth system resilience. There is now ample scientific evidence that climate regulation is particularly sensitive to the quality and extent of intact tropical and boreal forest ecosystems where those intact areas are located. There is even a free zoomable version of the map below that includes a quite detailed map layer for location companies operations and “sphere of influence” (the “protected” tab reproduces the map below).
The protection statuses of ecoregions of the world. The numbers in parentheses for each category represent the entire number of ecoregions found in each category. The ecoregion protection categories are defined as the following: Half Protected, more than 50% protected; Nature Could Reach Half, less than 50% of the total ecoregion area is protected, but the sum of the total ecoregion protected and unprotected natural habitat remaining is more than 50%; Nature Could Recover, the sum of the amount of natural habitat remaining and the amount of the total ecoregion that is protected is less than 50% but more than 20%; Nature Imperiled, the sum of the amount of natural habitat remaining and the amount of the total ecoregion that is protected is less than or equal to 20%. (From Dinerstein et al., 2017)
  • Specifically, there are several immediate actions companies can take – what SBTN call ‘No Regrets Actions’ which puts companies on the right path towards science-based targets for nature.
  • Finally, if your company would like to be at the forefront of ambitious corporate action on nature,  have the opportunity to help shape the final methods and tools, and get the chance to be part of a network of forward-thinking companies, to share experiences with and learn from, you may join the more than100 companies who are already members of SBTN’s Corporate Engagement Program.

This post was inspired by discussions with my colleague Samantha McCraine, Technical Coordinator of the Science Based Targets Network, at the end of 2021. Its publication on my personal blog coincides with the opening of the CBD SBSTTA 24 Meeting.

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About alainjbvidal

A convener, connector, strategist, scientist, father and grandfather. Passionate about translating science for business and governments, for food and nature systems transformation. I am a former (2018-2020) Food & Nature Science and Partnerships Director with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), where I was involved in the design of the OP2B Coalition, and supported OP2B with science translation for the past 2 years. After a decade long researcher career in Morocco and France, I worked with FAO before returning to Cemagref from 2003 to 2009 as its Director of European and International Affairs. In 2009, I was appointed the Director of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food. In 2014, I joined the CGIAR Consortium as Director of Strategic Partnerships. With an agricultural and environmental engineer degree from AgroParisTech, and a PhD in Water Sciences from the University of Montpellier, I have authored and co-authored more than forty refereed papers, and am now a Consulting Professor with AgroParisTech, and freelance consultant, in which capacity I have recently completed my 8-month term as interim, part-time Technical Director of the Science Based Targets Network.View all posts by alainjbvidal →This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged CBDdeforestationintactnessNatureplanetary boundariesSDG. Bookmark the permalink.← Nature loss: tomorrow will be too late, but we know how to fix it!

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