Will business be accountable for nature damage with COP15 deal?
A tractor sprays pesticides on wheat crops to be harvested this year, in Arapongas, Brazil July 6, 2022. REUTERS/Rodolfo Buhrer
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Some companies are aiming to have a positive effect on nature and biodiversity but what that means in practice is far from clear
- Some multinationals are aiming to become 'nature positive'
- But environmental activists say the concept lacks clarity
- Biodiversity reporting may become mandatory for big firms
MONTREAL - When farmers use fertilisers to help grow food, the excess nutrients they contain can run off into nearby rivers and lakes, contaminating freshwater supplies and harming biodiversity.
But for the companies that produce and sell the fertilisers, understanding their wider impact on nature can be complex, partly because the farmers they work with have no obligation to share information.
"We have at this stage no right to ask a farmer for his yield," said Anke Kwast, a vice president at Norwegian firm Yara International, one of the world's largest fertiliser-makers, noting that millions of farmers use its products.
Yara is working with them to reduce surplus fertiliser use and limit its negative impacts on nature, but will only gain a fuller picture after more widespread feedback, Kwast said.
"It's difficult, because we are selling less with more effort, you could say," she explained in an interview at the COP15 U.N. summit in Montreal, where governments are entering the final days of talks on a new global pact to protect nature.
To make any deal effective, they need to decide on how to tackle the drivers of biodiversity loss - of which the largest is agriculture - as human activities cause worsening destruction and degradation of natural areas like forests and rivers.
That has contributed to the planet's wildlife populations declining by more than two-thirds since 1970, the World Wildlife Fund estimates.
In response, at least 300 civil society groups and businesses have called for the COP15 accord to include "a nature-positive mission that commits the world to reverse biodiversity loss and improve the state of nature by 2030".
Like the rallying cry of "net zero" for the climate movement, which aims to ensure no more greenhouse gases are emitted than can be absorbed by ecosystems and other means by the second half of this century, "nature positive" aims to ensure there is more nature on the planet by 2030 than 2020.
Companies including Yara International and consumer goods giant Unilever have started using the phrase, with the latter announcing its intention of "working towards a nature-positive future".
Lack of clarity
Some environmental campaigners argue that the lack of stringent regulations linked to nature-positive goals could allow many businesses to continue with the status quo.
"It's not that all the private sector is awful (or) all businesses are bad, but the ones that are responsible for biodiversity loss will take advantage of any lack of clarity," said Mirna Ines Fernández, policy co-coordinator for the Global Youth Biodiversity Network.
She said "nature positive" opens the door to companies to keep on destroying nature as long as they offset the damage through expanding biodiversity elsewhere.
But "the most diverse and highly complex ecosystems" will not be replaceable, Fernández emphasised.
Mark Gough, CEO of the Capitals Coalition, a nonprofit that is promoting the nature-positive concept, said it is "not about offsetting" but "halting and reversing biodiversity loss" - and can serve as a "north star".
"No single company can really say they're nature positive", he added, conceding that some firms would still make the claim.
Gough said impacts on nature are especially hard to measure because they are highly dependent on local conditions, such as water availability, unlike planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide which are measured in tonnes of emissions.
As COP15 negotiations enter the final stretch, one key topic still under discussion is whether governments should make it mandatory for big businesses, including financial institutions, to disclose how their operations affect biodiversity.
Around 400 large companies have signed up to a campaign to "Make It Mandatory", including Yara, bank BNP Paribas and pharmaceuticals firm GSK.
"Voluntary action is just not cutting it, and we really need to get serious about setting the policy environment to drive action at scale and at speed," said Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a global coalition.
"Having this information is a way to engage investors, empower consumers, and also make sure that indigenous peoples' rights are fully respected," she told a COP15 event this week.
A delegate from the Netherlands said at the same event it is vital to include transparency in any global nature deal so as to better inform consumers, policymakers and investors.
"This will really help to align financial flows with the goals and the targets of the global biodiversity framework," said Sanne Kruid, a senior policy officer at the Dutch infrastructure and water management ministry.
Time 'not on our side'
Without a clearer understanding of what "nature positive" means, however, efforts to achieve it could lack teeth, campaigners argue.
Julia Bethe, policy and advocacy lead for green nonprofit Youth4Nature, said goals like nature positive are "very weak" because the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity lacks a formal definition for nature, leaving room for interpretation.
Strong standards and frameworks for implementation will be needed to drive a real shift among businesses and safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, she said.
Otherwise, "it's just opening the door to greenwashing, co-option and commodification of nature," she warned.
Tools to help businesses monitor their impact are being developed, including a "management and disclosure framework" from the donor-backed Taskforce on
Nature-related Financial Disclosures, which was set up in June 2021 by financial institutions, companies and market service providers.
But Laetitia Busokeye, director of research and environmental planning at the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, cautioned that Africa and other parts of the developing world will need more support to do such work.
Busokeye said businesses would require help to utilise the methods and tools available, while government agencies would have to strengthen their ability to check that firms comply.
"We really need to move quickly to build capacities... to make this target a success," she said.
"Time is not on our side."
(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Michael Taylor and Megan Rowling)
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