This article was originally published by Dr. Kat Bruce on LinkedIn.
Like so many others, I’ve been reflecting on what’s happened over the last couple of weeks at COP26, and how it relates to the world I’m more usually embedded within. For those of us in the biodiversity and conservation world, there’s a lot to get our heads around – and fast!
I founded NatureMetrics in 2015 with my PhD supervisor Prof. Doug Yu, based on our surprise & concern at the lack of data and evidence that was underpinning environmental management.
Nature is a big data problem – it’s big, messy and complex but there is predictable pattern. We know how to handle big data, but we haven’t been able to turn nature into data at the scales needed to apply those kinds of analytics. Using high-throughput DNA sequencing, Doug and I showed during my PhD that in just a few weeks we could deliver a scale of data that would have taken years to achieve with microscopes and expert taxonomists, and that this data was incredibly useful for testing assumptions about the impact of land management decisions on biodiversity and for tracking the progress of conservation initiatives and habitat restoration. It was the beginning of being able to take a big-data approach to measuring and accounting for biodiversity.
We founded NatureMetrics to make these kind of measurement tools available to those on the front line of environmental management & conservation. It was a distinctly niche area to be in at the time. Not any more.
Nature has been rising up the agenda for a few years. Corporate commitments to No Net Loss of biodiversity or to Nature Positive business are coming thick and fast, as are goals around the adoption of regenerative farming practices, including from some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille just a couple of months ago, we noted the significant and unprecedented participation of businesses and financial institutions, signalling that biodiversity is no longer just a tick-box consideration in the corporate world.
And now nature has firmly taken its place alongside emissions reductions at the heart of the global fight against climate change. This builds on years of work by scientists and policymakers to highlight the role that nature plays in mitigating or accelerating greenhouse gas emissions and to define the framework for robust implementation of Nature-based Solutions. It was boosted by the joint IPCC and IPBES report earlier this year, which emphasised that the biodiversity and climate crises are inextricably linked and neither one can be addressed without reference to the other.
And then came COP26; the Nature COP.
Nature Day on Saturday 6th November felt somewhat irrelevant because we’d already been talking about nature since day one. We saw a commitment to end deforestation by governments covering 90% of the world’s forests, and unlike previous commitments this is now being backed up by non-state actors who can pull financial levers in addition to regulatory ones. Pledges by financial institutions to end investment in deforestation-linked activities have the potential to redirect trillions of dollars from activities that harm nature to those that restore and protect it, meaning significant resources can flow into nature-based solutions and the green economy – it’s all about shifting the incentives throughout the value chain. We also saw the role of nature and biodiversity specifically mentioned for the first time in the official text of the COP.
But commitments mean nothing unless they turn into action and measurable outcomes, and scepticism about greenwashing is well founded. There’s a huge risk that companies use the opportunity to gain from the positive publicity around big commitments to nature but fail to deliver on those, and that’s especially likely because of the measurement problem that we have with nature.
There’s no common currency for biodiversity – species vary from place to place and are linked in complex networks with one another and their environments, and in the rush to simple metrics we end up with proxies that are so simplistic as to be effectively meaningless. We have to do better. If we can’t measure nature in a way that captures its complexity, we’re never going to be able to set meaningful targets and hold to account those who don’t meet them. Nor can we incentivise more nature-positive management and land-use practices e.g. by linking biodiversity outcomes to cheaper access to finance, premium pricing for goods or a market for biodiversity credits.
This is not the time to decide it’s too difficult to come up with simple metrics based on complex data. We have the technologies that can enable it, the pledges that require it, the market mechanisms it can enable, and all of the stakeholders fully engaged. Robust metrics can make the difference between empty promises and transformative systems change that delivers for nature and climate together.
For my part, I look forward to working with renewed energy alongside many others (e.g. the Science Based Targets Network) to accelerate the development of these metrics, and to trial them in multi-stakeholder collaborations. But fundamentally it all starts with on-the-ground assessment and we can start that right away – tools like environmental DNA make it possible even at large scales while providing opportunities to engage local stakeholders.
Once we have the data we can create the metrics; we can link it to satellite data to scale up inferences, we can use AI and machine learning to create new indices of ecosystem health, we can explore ecological networks to understand ecosystem functioning and resilience. Collecting the data is the first step, and this needs to be embedded into every programme. It will let us track change against robust biodiversity baselines in every project while feeding data into the engines that can deliver more universal metrics.
The time is now; we can and must do this!