The next big thing: Biodiversity footprinting

IT’S NOT all about polar bears and pandas. While the icy critters and bamboo chompers have stolen the show when it comes to climate change and conservation, more and more companies are waking up to their reliance on almost every part of the world’s biodiversity. Cadbury and Starbucks, for instance, are essentially reliant on one crop, grown in certain areas of the world where biodiversity and ecosystems are under threat. But take any food business and the role played by animals, plants and the ecosystems in which they interact cannot be under-estimated.

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But it has been. The Convention on Biodiversity and the Kyoto Protocol set off at roughly the same time; one to cut the rate at which the world’s ecosystems were disappearing, the other to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of political shenanigans at international level, carbon has since become a boardroom issue and seen to have a direct impact on the bottom line. But what about biodiversity? WWF’s Living Planet Report, covering 2,500 species in almost 8,000 locations, found that we are using the resources of 1.5 planets every year – in the UK the figure is closer to 2.75 planets. That’s a bit like spending £27,500 a year when you earn £10,000.


Putting a price on biodiversity is one of the big hurdles. Studies are appearing that at least provide an indication of the importance of natural resources to businesses. A UN-backed study on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity (Teeb) put values to some natural services – insect pollination is worth £120bn globally, for example. Some 87 of the 115 leading global food crops are, in fact, reliant on animal pollination.


Indeed, there are situations where biodiversity directly adds to productivity, quality or other attributes that can be translated into a financial benefit – especially for food businesses. Conversely, losing supporting biodiversity can be a net cost.


Sustainability experts believe the issue is “coming up on the rails”, but it’s still a long way from where we are with carbon or water. To account for it, you also have to be able to measure it – and therein lies the other hurdle.


Accounting for carbon is relatively easy, and the concept of footprinting is well-known. Some have suggested this could be extended to water – an idea that makes some academics uncomfortable given the issues around the type of water, location and timing (take 100 litres of water from the ground in Suffolk tomorrow to irrigate potatoes and it’ll have a very different impact from taking that quantity in the height of summer. In Spain, the picture will change again).


Ask the same scientists about the possibility of biodiversity footprinting and some will turn white as a polar bear. Biodiversity is the single most confusing environmental issue – not everyone can even agree on how to define it. There are probably upwards of 100 indicators that can be used, so the issue would be which ones to use? Bats? Bees? Birds? All of them?


While there might be talk of footprints for biodiversity, it’s unlikely that they will coming to a supermarket or restaurant anytime soon (just look at the issues Tesco has had with carbon labels). Tagging footprinting onto the end of something isn’t always the best way to understand it. Do we need biodiversity footprinting? Instead, more companies may well move towards careful reviewing of how their value chain interacts with the natural world; a more pragmatic approach to an issue that is far from black and white.