COMMENT: Nature Positive must build on lessons learned from implementing the mitigation hierarchy

Published 11:59 on December 20, 2022  /  Last updated at 11:05 on December 19, 2023  /  Biodiversity, Contributed Content, Other Content

There is a risk that references to nature positive goals will become a tactic used to distract consumers and the public from a continued failure to manage development impacts on biodiversity. This risk must not be overlooked as implementation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework begins, write a group of biodiversity and conservation experts.

By Martine Maron, Fabien Quétier, Amrei von Hase, & Mariana Sarmiento

Nature positive became a central concept to the negotiations at the CBD COP15 in Montreal. Many corporates, governments and NGOs have expressed interest (Endorsers – Leaders Pledge for Nature, Business for Nature’s Call to Action) or made explicit commitments to be nature positive (e.g. Holcim, Teck Resources, and others).

This is to be celebrated. Nature positive promises a move away from “do no harm” principles and merely reducing the rate at which biodiversity is being lost. It has also raised concerns that it will amount to more greenwashing if it doesn’t trigger smarter avoidance, more effective mitigation of impacts and long term, fair and equitable outcomes for nature and people from ecological restoration, and rewilding investments. This is an ambitious task and the recent decades have shown that even achieving no net loss of biodiversity is fraught with challenges, in spite of the widespread adoption of the mitigation hierarchy by governments, corporates, and financial institutions.

The mitigation hierarchy has been a guiding principle for managing impacts of development projects on biodiversity for at least two decades. For a project proponent to comply with the mitigation hierarchy, they must achieve at least a ‘no net loss’ outcome, and potential impacts on biodiversity must be first avoided, then unavoidable impacts minimised and restored, before any remaining impacts are offset. In some cases, a ‘net gain’ is required.

Nature positive takes this further still, applying more ambitious net outcome requirements across entire value chains and corporate portfolios, beyond permitting and investment decisions on individual projects, and encompassing the full range of components of nature (biodiversity, water, land/soil and climate/atmosphere). Large-scale nature positive can’t be achieved until and unless we successfully achieve no net loss and net gains in context of all sectors, operations, activities, and projects that interact materially with ecosystems and wildlife, and the people that value and depend on them. Only then can additional, (net) positive actions start to be considered in nature positive claims.

In response to growing nature positive commitments, a rapidly rising number of initiatives are developing technical solutions for corporations to be able to demonstrate their claims, mostly through the voluntary purchase of “credits”, “tokens”, “collectibles”, and other nature-positive “certificates”. Some of these build on existing habitat market frameworks and others on carbon credit markets. Stacking of multiple credits, however, is particularly risky. These solutions are largely disconnected from existing regulatory requirements on the mitigation hierarchy, including compensation or offsets for negative residual impacts on biodiversity in the context of development project/programme permitting.

From over a decade of experience with the mitigation hierarchy and engaging with policy and practice in this field, any pathway to nature positive must include the following key components:

1. Countries must take legal and policy measures to ensure that all projects that can potentially have a negative impact on biodiversity apply and implement the mitigation hierarchy. This requires strong environmental impact assessment processes as well as enforcement of mitigation and compensation measures so that permitting these projects doesn’t jeopardise the achievements of national targets for conserving and restoring habitats and species.
2. Mandatory in-kind compensation frameworks must be in place so that impacts on nature that cannot be avoided or minimised are fully compensated. Geographical proximity and other like for like requirements are necessary, as are appropriately transparent and verifiable registers of both impacts and compensation.
3. Compensation requirements must account for the time lag that it takes to recover nature in restoration and rewilding initiatives, and whenever possible require that compensation be in place before impacts occur (e.g. through habitat banks and equivalent mechanisms). This requires financial and assurance mechanisms.
4. Financial institutions acting as lenders to projects that will create inevitable impacts on biodiversity must put in place controls so that their clients (private and public sector) are compliant with the mitigation hierarchy, even when local regulations are not in place.
5. All companies should assess and report on their impacts and dependencies on nature, and budget for permanent contributions to nature recovery in a way that enables their net impact on species and habitats to be tracked over time.
6. Public-private partnerships, public-private-community partnerships, and other innovative and inclusive governance arrangements will be needed to deliver biodiversity gains at scale and achieve nature positive outcomes; including the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits this will bring.

There is a risk that references to nature positive goals will become a tactic used to distract consumers and the public from a continued failure to manage development impacts on biodiversity. This risk must not be overlooked as implementation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework begins, including on Target 15 about reducing significant impacts on biodiversity, and on Target 19 about the financing mechanisms and the private sector involvement.