Biodiversity and climate change

One of the environmental issues over the past 50 years that has attracted contentious debate across many countries is the level of effort needed to conserve wildlife and its natural environment within their borders.  The strongest arguments have revolved around the conflict caused by a generalised willingness to pursue economic development at the cost of nature, with conservation advocates often lined up against business developers across a wide range of projects.

Landmark progress was made in the early 1990s with the entry into force of a United Nations treaty, the Convention on Biodiversity, that set out the principles for conserving and enhancing the remaining wildlife species and their habitats.

However, a recent examination established that while this has brought successes in some regions of the world,  much work is still required to prevent further and potentially catastrophic losses of ecosystems that will impact significantly on the the global economy.

A briefing is attached that considers some of the important issues associated with the topic.  It also flags the immediate implications for businesses whose activities interface with natural biological systems.

Geoff Noonan
Principal, The Middle Way Pty Ltd

18 July 2022


  1. Purpose of the briefing
  2. Background
  3. Biodiversity: the concept and status
  4. Challenges warranting urgent attention
  5. Climate change
  6. Carbon biosequestration and offsets
  7. “Think globally but act locally”
  8. Immediate implications for business
  9. References

1.  Purpose of the briefing

This review examines the key reasons for the growing concern about the threats facing biological diversity across the world, and in particular, the overlap in the three goals of:

  • conserving the intrinsic resilience of natural biological systems;
  • sustaining the economic and social services they provide to society; and
  • mitigating their vulnerability to climate change.

Some of the  elements of each goal do come into  conflict,  but there are also opportunities to take actions that satisfy all of them.

This is translating into an increasing demand by the international investment community for higher levels of transparency about the potential impacts of firms on their interface with the natural world.

The brief explores how exposed entities should consider responding to this new level of interest.

2.  Background

A global challenge that must now be faced is the conservation of the diverse plant, fungal and animal species distributed across the planet that are at risk, and in some cases, under under the threat of extinction.  The IUCN Red List, for example, identifies 40,000 species that fit into the latter.

The biodiversity capacity of the world dropped by 68% between 1970 and 2018, with the loss accelerating in the last 5 of these years.  The current extinction rate of species is estimated to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than that before humans were around, placing us amid the 6th Mass Extinction.  The 5th occurred 65 million years ago  (WWF, 15 Mar 2022)  .

The issue is not new.  Wildlife conservation and enhancement measures were introduced in many countries following ratification of the landmark treaty,  the UNConvention on Biodiversity (CBD) ,  in 1993.

Now however, there are threat multipliers from the rapid progression of climate change,  and the growing competition between wildlife protection and food security as the demand for commercially arable land increases.

Addressing biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is clearly now imperative if the future of one species – humans – is to be guaranteed.  Not only has the threat become a global policy issue for government, but also a front-and-centre ESG matter for business.  In fact,  it represents the fourth highest business risk over the next 5-10 years (WEF).

Accordingly,  146 UN Member Nations have now signed the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use  agreed in November 2021, that, inter alia,

  • commits to conserve forests and other terrestrial ecosystems and accelerate their restoration;  and
  • facilitate trade and development policies that do not drive deforestation and land degradation.

Their endorsements cover 14 million square miles of forests (3.7 billion hectares). (Glasgow-leaders-declaration-on-forests-and-land-use).

The topic will also be considered in discussions on the proposed Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” by the Parties to the 1993 Convention when they meet in Montreal  in December this year.

The Framework includes goals for the protection of biological diversity in the context of the emerging threats, with certain targets to be achieved globally by 2030.

3.  Biodiversity: the concept and status

It has long been known that well established natural biological habitats that harbour a wide variety of genetic resources are likely to be resilient against external shocks such as floods, dehydration, or invasion by alien plant or animal species.

 And particularly so if the ecosystems are unfragmented;  of sufficient size to be self-sufficient;  and incorporate natural corridors to facilitate communications between the gene pools they support.

The concept of biodiversity has many dimensions, and acknowledges the intricate interactions within ecosystems that can occur between species and their communities, or between the gene pools of individual organisms.  Tropical native rain forests, for example, are among the richest source of all life forms, and the ecosystems they sustain can function perfectly well over centuries if there is no interference by humans.

In effect, biodiversity is not just the sum of the existence of these individual biological elements, but also the totality of the actions and connections between all living things.  Which is why biodiversity has been described as the  web of life(Dasgupta,  2021).

But it is also clear that threats to sensitive ecosystems have progressively increased over the past 50 years, largely from stressors such as destructive or poorly managed land clearing for the spread of urbanisation and agriculture, and invasion by alien plant or animal species.

Strong evidence of this is provided by the steep decline in regional bird abundance and the global population of insects.  Birds play a key role in ecosystem maintenance, while pollinators such as bees support 75% of the global production of fruits, vegetables, and cash crops like coffee, cocoa, and almonds.

But the highest risk comes not from the extinction of certain species but from the destruction of their freshwater, marine, vegetation or subsoil habitats.  These  areas provide the only avenue available for the reintroduction and re-establishment of species threatened with extinction.

3.1  An independent status evaluation

The landmark UN Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)  published in 2019, outlined how wildlife conservation and enhancement measures over the previous 30 years had failed to prevent further loss or restore degraded lands.

Examples given of the adverse anthropocentric impacts on the 8-million animal and plant species on Earth,  include:

  • a 30%: reduction in global terrestrial habitat integrity caused by habitat loss and deterioration
  • 500,000 of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long term survival without habitat restoration
  • > 40% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction
  • 33% of reef forming corals, sharks and marine mammals are threatened with­ extinction
  • 400 low oxygen coastal ecosystem ‘dead zones’ covering 245,000 km2 have been caused by impacts such as pollution with agricultural fertilizers
  • 290 million hectares of native forest cover were lost due to clearing and wood harvesting between 1990 and 2015.  Critically though, the loss of wetlands is currently occurring three times faster than forest loss (in % terms)
  • 300-400 million tons of ecotoxic heavy metals, solvents, sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped, annually, into the world’s waters
  • a 10-fold increase in plastic pollution since 1980
  • a 70% increase since 1970 in the type of invasive alien species across the 21 countries that hold detailed records

The report also flagged that the impacts were now being accelerated by climate change, presaging the loss of a further 1-million species over the coming decades.

The consequential economic cost of this acceleration would be catastrophic.  Vital ecosystem services such as the security of terrestrial animal and plant-based food production, the future of marine life including commercial seafood, and the natural buffering processes provided by wetlands and forests against extreme storms and floods, could fail if the projected growth in global warming were not contained.  (NASEM, 2022).

Many of the trends seen in Australia for biodiversity loss are consistent with those highlighted globally.  For example, at June 2021 (SOE):

  • More than 1,900 Australian species and ecological communities were known to be threatened and at risk of extinction.
  • Over the past 2 centuries, Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent, and continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline among countries in the OECD.

4.   Challenges warranting  urgent attention

The types of threats to global biodiversity that will demand strategic responses from business and government include the:

  1. Potentially catastrophic environmental changes the planet will experience from global warming within the next 2-3 decades (as discussed below)
  2. Need to feed an additional 1-billion people by 2050, and as a consequence, the competition this will create for land-use changes favouring economic priorities over the protection of native forests and grasslands.   Many of the additional people will be subsistence dwellers in new and poor urban megacities, whose demand for food and water will stretch local resources.
  3. Deteriorating ocean environment across the globe, including in the unregulated open high seas that will increasingly be exposed to the ‘tragedy of the commons”. High productivity coastal habitats that protect marine life and are its nurseries, are also threatened (Nielson K, 2018)  .
  4. Loss of security of fresh water available for humans, terrestrial plants, and wildlife. Droughts plus variations from historical rainfall patterns impact adversely on socio-economic and natural water distribution patterns.
  5. Perpetual increase in the release of soluble pollutants and solid waste into all environmental media (soil, freshwater, oceans and the atmosphere). The growing number of megacities is increasing the spread and impact of high intensity pollution centres.
  6. The overwhelming impact of pollution of the oceans by plastics is becoming one example of crisis proportion: the OECD estimates that 30 million tonnes has accumulated in the oceans, with the seas interfacing China, South-East Asia and North America receiving much of this load (OECD, 2022)
  7. Growing exposure by urban and rural residents to new and exotic pathogenic viruses, largely from the fragmentation of natural biological zones not previously encountered by humans.   Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animals, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities that disrupt natural interactions between species and their microbes, and their increased contact among native animals, livestock, and people Dazak P;  Das Gupta, pp 19,20.     COVID is an ongoing example.
  8. Continued growth in the invasion of alien species into sensitive and vulnerable ecosystems. The most visible in Australia is the native species loss caused by the proliferation of feral cats and foxes which that kill 2 billion small native mammals each year.  Habitat destruction by wild horses in the Snowy Mountains and feral camels in Central Australia is also contentious.

Each factor above, when considered alone, or as a compound risk where multiples overlap, is accelerating the demise of natural biological systems that provide the support needed for global sustainable food security.  And at a time when a resilient and strategically managed natural world will be vital for the stable access to nutrition and fresh water that the projected 9 billion inhabitants of the Earth will demand in 2050.

There is, however, one overarching challenge that warrants special attention:

 5.    Climate change

Scientific analyses over the past 5-10 years have established that the negative impacts of climate change on biological systems worldwide are accelerating, and this is creating the circumstances for global environmental deterioration that it was unimaginable as recently as a decade ago.

It is now clear that the scope and scale of the rapid warming of the planet will permanently alter or destroy many biological systems that have evolved over hundreds or thousands of years, both on land and in the oceans.

Examples of its impacts include (IPCC, AR 6, 2022):

  • An increase in the frequency and distribution of extreme weather events that destroy wide regions of irreplaceable habitat. The combined coverage of wildfires in Eastern Australia and California in the US over the 18 month period from mid 2019, destroyed vast regions of high value vegetation that provided habitat for millions of animal species.
    • The scale of the unprecedented devastation by the fires not only removed local regional habitats, but also the network of corridors that facilitated the communications between species and the spread of the gene pools that underpinned regional biodiversity.  Both are irreplaceable.
  • Rainfall patterns are changing and are also becoming unpredictable. An increasing number of regions across the world are experiencing unprecedented flooding that has destroyed numerous local and regional ecosystems.  Erratic precipitation is also challenging the survival of major wetlands that are critical to preserving the integrity of aquatic biota in inland river networks.  Plant and animal ecosystems along the rivers, and inside the wetlands, evolve over long periods to rely not only on predictable volumes of rain, but also on the reliability of their timing that can include long dry spells.  These patterns are detrimental to the reproduction cycles of wetland species which move out of sync.
  • Some ecosystems will adapt to the modified rainfall patterns, but others will disappear, with substantial environmental and socio-economic implications for the regions involved.  The World Resources Institute (WRI) provides an online facility, “Aqueduct,” that allows for the status and future of freshwater systems to be interrogated under different threat scenarios.
  • The world’s oceans are undergoing significant structural changes. For example:
    • their acidification from the increased concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide presents insidious threats to marine creatures with a calcium-based exoskeleton.
    • there is an increase in the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves during which high water temperatures can be lethal to sensitive organisms. Heatwaves in the seas in tropical and sub-tropical zones are also driving the southward migration of fish species that can’t tolerate the warming waters.
    • Coral reefs across the world are suffering losses from heat stress, and some could be dead before 2050. They are high value ecosystems that sponsor a large variety of marine organisms.

The Great Barrier Reef is a striking case, having experienced its fourth mass bleaching in 25 years in early 2022. The rapid succession of these devastating events is preventing the coral from recovering, so even the near-term future of the Reef is being questioned if the heat-stress events continue (GBR) .

The loss of the GBR and other reefs around the world has enormous implications for so much of the ocean biology.  There are also significant socio-economic costs borne by industries such as tourism and commercial fishing that rely on them, and especially so where the commerce exclusively involves subsistence populations.

  • Similarly, species-rich mangroves and kelp farms along coastlines are vital breeding grounds for marine species, and offer protection to their more sensitive and vulnerable groups.

However,  their survival is not only being challenged by the warming of the seas, but also by a second phenomenon, the rising of the ocean baseline height.  This is now largely under the influence of the accelerating melt of the Arctic ice cap and glaciers in the northern hemisphere.

The kelp and mangroves are being exposed to salinity increases from the intrusion of the higher waters inland.  And they need to cope with the higher turbidity from the more severe storm inland impacts created by the elevated seas.

6.  Carbon biosequestration and offsets

One of the key decisions at the UN Heads of Government  meeting in November 2021 on climate change was for the Member Nations to reduce their annual carbon emissions to zero by 2050.  But in agreeing to this commitment, they acknowledged that fossil fuel consumption would likely persist well past that year.

To achieve the balance required, other measures would be required that provide ‘negative emissions’ to achieve the zero balance.

Optimistically, these could involve engineering projects to remove carbon dioxide from emissions sources or directly from the atmosphere, noting that the mass of the gas to be released from now to 2035 is expected to be 40-50 billion tonnes, each and every year.

There are no techniques available to capture this enormous and unimaginable load, including the much-canvassed and highly controversial ‘carbon capture and geosequestration’ (i.e. underground storage of carbon dioxide).

Debate has therefore centred on augmenting the potential to trap more carbon in plants and soil – a process known as biosequestration. This is a normal biological activity in which plants absorb carbon dioxide and photosynthesise it to increase plant mass,  and then release oxygen to the atmosphere.

An example is the large scale plantings of trees or selected crops that could be funded by some form of financial levy on carbon dioxide polluters.  Management steps would be mandated by law to ensure the carbon remains trapped in the vegetation for decades.

Whether or not this is a viable solution remains to be seen,  but it seriously challenges strategies to enhance biodiversity (Dooley et al 2021) because:

  1. To make an impact on the mass of carbon dioxide that will be emitted over the next 20 years – arguably about a trillion tonnes (1,000 billion) – millions of square kilometres of arable land would need to be dedicated to planting fast growing vegetation monocultures, which would need to respire, relentlessly, until well past 2050.
  2. The plants and soil would also require substantial volumes of freshwater to survive and flourish.  But in many locations, the water would be abstracted in direct competition with the existing demand for water for personal or agricultural uses, or even by other natural assets.
  3. There is evidence that the growth efficiency of plants used for biosequestration could diminish through feedback inhibition as the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increases. The efficiency will decline further as the temperature of the growing regions increases past the optimum growth level for the vegetation selected.  Other plants will die from the heat stress that will further compromise water availability for the region at the same time.
  4. The area of land that is both suitable and available for large scale monoculture planting is not only limited, but also likely be in zones that will be needed to grow food for future populations.

The impact is that each hectare removed for climate change mitigation increases the risk of food insecurity for the people in the region impacted; and most likely for surrounding regions that could sacrifice water supplies too.

Commercial planting for carbon removal extends the anthropocentric interface with natural biological systems,  since it is essentially another form of agriculture.  So if the value of a carbon credit generated for each tonne of carbon sequestered increases significantly as the impacts of climate change get worse, the returns from commercial plantings could out-bid nature conservation projects for capital.  This is especially the case in high productivity regions where there is poverty or other socio-economic issues seeking economic support.

Collectively, these factors oppose the use of biosequestration as an alternative to the urgent reduction of all fossil fuel burning, and possibly as an adjunct to it as well.

In addition, carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning occur instantaneously and with a 100% guarantee.  But a significant and resilient uptake of carbon by plants or soil can take decades from the first day of their planting, and with a lower chance of success.

7.  “Think globally but act locally

This mantra has been applied for years to the task of containing greenhouse gas emissions,  because global warming is the cumulative impact of the millions of activities across the planet that release carbon dioxide and methane to the Earth’s single, planet-wide atmosphere.

But it can also be applied to biodiversity conservation, albeit for two different reasons.

  • Ecosystem protection and enhancement goals must focus on regional or local activities. Millions of plants and animals (including insects) survive only in narrowly defined habitats, which themselves can be confined to highly specific locations.Conversely, an international perspective on biological diversity is imperative, because species such the whales and birds that migrate across the planet obviously require cross-border co-operation for their survival.
  • The regulation of international trade and commerce in biological materials and services is also enhanced by the use of common definitions, metrics and performance indicators in international environmental standards. Similarly,  wide sharing of knowledge about successful interventions to conserve biodiversity is feasible only if a common scientific language is available.

Public and private organisations need to employ contemporary biological sciences to characterise the most relevant aspects of each ecosystem in their vicinity that could be impacted by their activities.  They then need to be transparent about their risk exposure using internationally accepted benchmarks.

Measures available for protecting nature include:

  1. Ensuring wildlife thrives within protected areas on land and at sea.
  2. Better conservation of existing wildlife habitats outside protected areas, and in particular those areas identified as part of nature’s communication networks such as wildlife corridors.
  3. Investing in habitat restoration, and particularly in clear-cut native forests or on degraded agricultural land and wetlands. Investment proposals should follow a formal assessment of the specific management steps required at each site.
  4. Ensuring outcomes for nature are integrated in regional economic development plans on land and at sea.
  5. Tackling atmospheric and diffuse water pollution, especially from nitrogen and ammonia.

Fortunately, implementing these measures can create multipliers for the positive outcomes. For example, the regeneration of agriculture that restores natural grasses, shrubs and trees can:

  1. recover lost habitats that support the return of local native wildlife species
  2. enhance soil structure, stability, and productivity,
  3. stabilize the distribution and availability of water, and
  4. reduce emissions of other key greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous dioxide where animal husbandry and fertilizer application are properly managed as well.

Methods are available for standardising and verifying the levels of success achieved by projects with these goals.

8.  Immediate implications for business

The normal day-to-day activities of businesses in a wide range of industry sectors have the potential to create adverse impacts on e ecosystems in their vicinity.  But at the same time, they may also rely on one or more of the social or economic services the same ecosystems provide.

Forestry, agriculture and urban property development are examples of threats;  food security, tourism, and natural water quality enhancement are services.

The geopolitical and global economic issues that have arisen since February 2022 have created a new form of business insecurity.  But prior to that the World Economic Forum’s global risk survey published in 2022 identified biodiversity as the third highest business threat over the next 5-10 years (after climate change aspects, that were first and second).

There is a growing impetus for businesses across the world to recognise and understand the implications of their interface with sensitive ecosystems;  to avoid or address their impacts; and to disclose their risk exposure profile in accordance with established ESG reporting mechanisms.

Unprecedented public and private capital is now being directed to projects around the world that seek to conserve biodiversity, and especially the economic services it provides.

Private investments generally have the goal of obtaining a market-based return on a financial outlay within a relatively short time horizon.  This creates the need for special effort if the goal is also to enhance biodiversity, because self-sustaining ecosystems have their own drivers and evolve at their own pace.

So any strategy for protecting or enhancing habitats or the species they contain must focus on the dynamics of their relationships first, which commonly evolve over many decades.

One avenue where socio-economic and ecological interests can converge is where indigenous knowledge and heritage are utilised to identify and protect high value species that have evolved over very long periods to survive in specific local habitats.  Many commentators consider this is a poorly developed opportunity that must be explored to better plan the future strategies for complex ecosystems (IIFB) .

Governments and NGOs across the world are now requesting that businesses whose activities interact with nature include plans showing how they will mitigate material impacts in the near term,  as well as the targets they will need to meet for doing so.   For example:

  • the European Union’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation that came into effect in March 2021, sets out 43 mandatory progressive disclosure obligations around biodiversity for asset managers and other financial actors (EFRAG) .
  • The 2019 French Energy-Climate Law includes the disclosure of the strategies by which businesses will align with international biodiversity preservation objectives ( French Law).

These laws will also be used to implement the proposed Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” expected to be agreed upon by  the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity when they meet in Montreal in December 2022.  The Framework includes goals for the protection of biological diversity in the context of the emerging threats, with certain goals to be achieved globally by 2030.

Although much of this change is happening in the advanced economies in the northern hemisphere, its influence is also spreading to businesses elsewhere who trade within the supply chains of countries that will sign up to the new Framework.

Australian businesses in this position can therefore expect to be requested to disclose how they manage their interface with nature.  Fortunately, international frameworks to standardise how these disclosures should be prepared are available,  and include the:

  • Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures(TNFD),  a new international entity established in June 2021.  It released updated guidelines on 28 June 2022 for reporting on biodiversity impacts.
  • Biodiversity and ecosystems, Exposure Draft Standard, ESRS E4, April 2022. European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG).
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) that requests details of each operational site controlled by a business that is in, or adjacent to, areas of high biodiversity value.
  • Science Based Targets for Nature (SBT 2022).

9.   References

CDP Worldwide, 2020.  Unlocking nature’s potential. London, of rain forest nations,

Dasgupta, P. (2021), The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. Abridged Version. (London: HM Treasury).

Daszak P, Amuasi J, das Neves CG, Haymen D, Kuiken T, Roche B et al. (2020).  Workshop report on biodiversity and pandemics, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

Dooley K , Harrould-Kolieb E,  Talberg A,   3 September 2020 ;  Carbon Dioxide Removal and Biodiversity: A Threat Identification Framework.  Global Policy, Wiley Online Library;

EFRAG: European Financial Reporting Advisory Group Biodiversity and ecosystems, Exposure Draft Standard, ESRS E4, April 2022.

French Law:  Article 29 of Law No. 2019-1147 (Energy-Climate Law), 8 November  2019.

 Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, November 2019;

Global Reporting Initiative (GRI),  GRI 304:  Biodiversity 2016,  Topic Standard, Amsterdam,

Great Barrier Reef Foundation, 2022;  Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program;;  Queensland Australia

Griscom et al , Natural climate solutions, PNAS,  31 October 2017, 114 (44) 11645-11650;

Gustin G, 19 December 2019, The Amazon is the Planet’s Counterweight to Global Warming.  Inside Climate News, Washington.

IIFB,  International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity;

IPCC, March 2022,  UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers;

IPBES (2019): Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat,  Bonn. 1,148 pages.

 NASEM 2022;  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine, (USA)  Biodiversity at Risk: Today’s choices matter.

Nielsen, K., et al;     5.January 2018.    Emerging understanding of the potential role of seagrass and kelp as an ocean acidification management tool in California. California Ocean Science Trust, Oakland, California, USA.

 OECD, 2022,  Plastics flows and their impacts on the environment in “Global Plastics Outlook”;

SBT, September 2020;  Science Based Targets for Nature:  Initial guidance for business; Science Based Targets Network.

Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 5 July 2021, Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”;  www.CBD/WG2020/3/3

Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (2020) Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 , Montreal,

SOE, June 2021;  Australia  State of the Environment; Australian Government, Canberra;

TNFD,  28 June 2022: Task Force for Nature-related Financial Disclosure:  The TNFD Nature-related Risk & Opportunity Management and Disclosure Framework,

UN Environment Programme and International Union for Conservation of Nature (2021). Nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation. Nairobi and Gland.

World Economic Forum, 2022, The Global Risks Report, 17th edition.  www.

World Resources Institute,  AQUEDUCT Water Risk Atlas;

 World Resources Institute, Global forest watch:  https//

 WWF (2020) Living Planet Report 2020 Bending the curve of biodiversity loss. Almond, R.E.A., Grooten M. and Petersen, T. (Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

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