Skip to content
Site search
Natural Environment

Biodiversity: five lessons in cohabiting with the natural world

The twin-crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are becoming more widely recognised as two sides of the same challenge. How can countries balance development with safeguarding the natural habitat?

Kay Pitman, Thought Leadership Specialist, World Built Environment Forum
9 December 2021

Nature is not just ‘out there’, it has functional use to us

‘Look at the biomass of mammals on earth’ explains Mark Everard, Associate Professor of Ecosystems Services at University of the West of England. ‘96% of it comprises us and our livestock, and 70% of global biomass is poultry. So we are absolutely dominating the natural world, and we’ve gone down this pathway really blind to the natural implications. In thinking about nature, what’s important is that we stop thinking about it as altruism. The idea that nature’s out there and to be protected, while we’re in here. We’re breathing nature, we eat nature, we drink nature, nature gives us our aesthetic enrichment, our spiritual enrichment, it helps us with flood and disease protection. This functional view of nature is the most important change in mindset that we need for the future. If we look after nature then nature can look after us, because nature does look after us. If we ignore that fundamental view, we will continue this desperately rapid decline.’

Richard Betts, Associate Partner, Climate Change & Sustainability Services, Ernst & Young, agrees. ‘We’re increasingly living in urbanised areas and we’ve lost that direct connection to the natural world. We tend to get our food from the supermarket, and we don’t think of where it came from. We’ve become detached and desensitised from nature. But we are part of nature, and biodiversity is the fabric of life.’

The twin-crises of climate and biodiversity need to be tackled together

Richard explains: ‘We will not be able to tackle the climate crisis unless we simultaneously combat the biodiversity crisis. Up until this point, nature has been doing a great deal of the job for us for free. Our forests, our mangroves and our other natural assets have been removing much of our carbon pollution. We need to focus on preservation and restoration at scale to tackle these crises.’

Farah Naz, Chair of CIBSE UAE and Lead Sustainable Solutions and ESG for AECOM Middle East and Africa says: ‘I don’t see a lot of natural capital accounting happening outside of certain European countries. This is a trend that we’re seeing being picked up in the Middle East. Yet doing natural capital accounting assessments has such value. We need to start having those conversations with our clients and colleagues, because that’s the only way that we’ll get the mind shift that we need. Big shifts only happen when we make changes in our everyday lives.

Technology and the food-energy-water nexus

Farah explains: ‘To generate food we need energy and water, and to generate energy we need water. I think the key question we need to ask ourselves is: how can nations and cities safeguard themselves? We really need an effective theory of change. One that looks at the wisdom from nature and all the lessons we have learned as a generation. We need a framework that links the energy transition with the natural capital model. When we’re talking about the built environment, the energy transition is often spoken about in isolation, but we need to have these two conversations simultaneously. It’s not just about net zero, its also about nature positive. At COP26, there were many conversations about linking these two things together.’

To feed, cloth, house and water 9.5-10.5 billion people by 2050, we need greater technological efficiency. But we need to be clever about what the technology is.

Mark Everard
Associate Professor of Ecosystems Services at University of the West of England

Mark explains ‘We are doomed without technology. To feed, cloth, house and water 9.5-10.5 billion people by 2050, we need greater technological efficiency. But we need to be clever about what the technology is. Technology doesn’t always involve something with a plug or a combustion engine. When thinking about land use, there are some really good nature-based technologies. Building beetle banks, buffer zones, or minimum tillage to retain soil fauna produces all sorts of land functions that rebuild the fertility of soil, regulate diseases, better manages hydrology and carbon storage. We need to think about what technology means. We need to regard habitats in a multifunctional sense as well, whether it’s an urban or rural habitat. Fields aren’t just there for food production, they also store carbon, support nature, support our recreational activities, buffer hydrology and so on. We need to value all those things equally when we develop novel technologies for food production. We don’t want to be siloed, to focus on one output, ignoring the systems damage to everything else. We need to look at total value.’

Richard agrees: ‘new technologies have a really exciting potential in terms of helping us with measurement. Up until this point, our ability to measure has been limited. But now we have this potential to take a big step up: to get robust, granular, real time global data. But we also need to be aware of unintended consequences.’

It’s not just about net zero, its also about nature positive. At COP26, there were many conversations about linking these two things together

Farah Naz
Chair of CIBSE UAE and Lead Sustainable Solutions and ESG for AECOM Middle East and Africa

We need to stop ‘gardening’

Moving things into a global context is absolutely vital’, explains Mark. ‘As an example, one of the many pressures on the lower Yangtze is nutrient enrichment, which is a serious problem. A lot of the nutrient comes from pig production. In the pig’s food chain, a lot of the nutrient (in the form of feed) comes from imported soybean in Brazil, where the production of soybean is destroying the forests and the water. Part of the problem in the Yangtze is also from phosphorous, which is imported from Morocco. So that’s three lots of ecosystem destruction. A systems model is needed. There are many out there, such as the five capitals, natural STEP, STEEP, or ecosystems services. We need to bring these into decision making frameworks, into financial decision making, regulatory decision-making, and into consultancy so they become central to the service offering of companies. Without these, we are kind of trying to fix the world by ‘gardening’: messing around very locally and not looking over the fence.’

‘Experts like Mark need to sit next to a renewable expert’ say Farah. ‘We all want to get to net zero, but we’re so isolated, that the cross pollination of ideas is often missed. One of the biggest lessons to take from COP26 is that we really need to have those conversations across the globe and share learning.’

We’re on the verge of a big shift in thinking

Farah says:the TCFD was a really big step for the energy transition. Right now, the Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosure will have a huge impact. It’s a chance for us to globally step up and look at the natural capital and biodiversity in a more enhanced way. Richard explains: ‘The idea is to develop a framework for reporting on nature-related risks and opportunities. It should help to redirect the flows of finance away from activities that are net negative, and towards those that are net positive for nature. The goal is for the framework to be published in 2023.’

Richard says: ‘We’re talking about the need for a paradigm shift: we need to move to a circular economy. Right now our thinking is linear and short-term, and based on extractive and destructive processes. We mine something, we manufacture it, we consume it, then its waste and then we start all over again. In the past we could get away with it because our collective footprint was much smaller. But now were in a different reality, due to the huge growth in population and the economy in recent decades. We need to take a different model. We have to rapidly move from linear practices to circular practices, to a systems view. I’ve been encouraged by the shift in narrative we’ve seen in recent years – moving from prioritising reduction to neutrality or net zero, and beyond that, to regenerative, restorative, nature-positive type initiatives.’

Biodiversity net gain – Cohabiting with the natural habitat