From Carbon to Biodiversity reporting – lessons and challenges for the finance sector

Authors: Katie Critchlow, CEO of NatureMetrics, Advisory Council member APPG Sustainable Finance

After decades of work, climate reporting is now going mainstream. But how does biodiversity follow? As complex as climate change is, a simple unifying and globally consistent measure of carbon emissions has enabled clear target setting and has lead to the establishment of reporting frameworks such as TCFD to measure corporate and investor progress. Biodiversity put simply is everything living; from the microbes which provide our soil fertility to majestic whales in our ocean. Life on earth is incredibly complex. But simple targets to drive progress on biodiversity from global goals to investment portfolios should no longer be a pipedream thanks to new ways of providing big data on nature.

The first demand from the finance sector is, understandably, that biodiversity metrics are simple. But if we aim only for simplicity without taking into account the inherent complexity of biological communities we create meaningless measures which only serve to further conceal the underlying rate of biodiversity loss.

In the past, between nature and data has sat binoculars, cameras, microscopes and waterproof notebooks, relying on human observers to record individuals and identify species one at a time.

Inevitably, such effort has focused on those components of biodiversity that are large in body size, small in number, and easily recognizable by visual characteristics. This has been time consuming, expensive, risky and unscalable. It has also concealed the loss of the ‘small things that run the world’ – the invertebrate animals and microscopic organisms that are the building blocks of our ecosystems, cycling nutrients, maintaining soil health, protecting against outbreaks of disease or pests. The health of these vast communities of unseen and previously unmeasurable organisms is of material impact to businesses and their investors.

There are now technologies that allow biodiversity data collection at an unprecedented pace and scale. My business, NatureMetrics, provides biomonitoring using DNA, detecting organisms similarly to the way you might detect someone at the scene of a crime. We can detect whole communities of species – from bacteria to bats – from DNA isolated from water or soil.

Meanwhile, other 21st century nature data providers such as drones and Earth Observation are revolutionizing vegetation surveys and even large mammal surveys across vast terrestrial ecosystems.

By building robust data baselines, we lay the foundations of our understanding and management of the natural world. We can then simplify this data from the ‘bottom up’ to portfolio level aggregate measures and decision making tools.

We are used to dealing with big data these days. Big data algorithms take huge, complex, noisy datasets and use them to drive simple scales and visualisations.

Biodiversity is a classic big data problem. At any given place and time, individuals belonging to thousands of species are responding to a huge variety of different factors. The responses of biological communities to these factors are varied and complex. So much so that if you pick just a small number of species to track, you may not see any significant response to an impact at all; but connecting data on the responses of many species reveals predictable response patterns at the community level.

As these biological data layers become available for the first time we can unlock this powerful knowledge about how our natural life support systems respond to human impacts. Then we can improve those impacts before it is too late.

DNA based monitoring of marine sediment gives so much more data than by sight alone, enabling us to detect patterns and impacts not visible before.

This month a SwissRe report warned that failure to act on biodiversity loss has put a fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse. From agriculture to nature-based climate solutions – we rely on nature and nature relies on us and the time is now to figure out those interactions.

We have begun to build a picture of how this might look for the finance sector. From detailed site level data through to aggregated measures of ecosystem services and natural capital for corporate level reporting and finally up to aggregated measures of Net Positive Impact or other Science Based Targets (see Fig 1).

There are many things we now need to do to reverse biodiversity decline but at NatureMetrics we believe that the powerful data we and others provide gives us the best opportunity to understand the impact of the finance sector on nature and to drive better decision making.

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