Two bars show the rising loss of species over time, from 140 total 1500-1900 and rising to 617 extinctions by 2014. Left axis shows habitat loss shot up to 5 billion hecatres over the period.

Biodiversity—the world’s varied wildlife, plants and habitats—is bound up with the viability of human life, especially food production (both farming and aquaculture). Rising levels of pests, extinctions, habitat loss, heat waves, wildfires and other human impacts are harming biodiversity, including by diminishing soil and water quality, pollination and disease resistance around the world. Nature’s effectiveness as a carbon “sink” (storing C02) is also waning.

Limiting future C02 emissions will be paramount, as climate change is set to become the top threat to biodiversity—and investors have an important role to play. Emerging investment initiatives using new metrics will focus attention on ecosystem loss while nudging progress toward conserving and restoring biodiversity. Those companies working to improve biodiversity may present new investing opportunities. 

Let’s begin by defining three key terms:

Biodiversity (also called biological diversity): The variety of living things in a specified location—your backyard, a forest, a country, the Earth. What you can see (animals, plants, insects, fish) and what you can’t (bacteria, fungi).1

Ecosystems: Where the physical environment (water, nutrients, land, air) and organisms interact to sustain themselves. For ecosystems to be healthy, biodiversity is critical.

Ecosystem services: The direct and indirect benefits to humankind of biodiversity and ecosystems. These “services” include providing people with raw materials, creating conditions for income and mental and physical health (through tourism, recreation and enjoying nature) and regulating climate, water, pollution and disease.

Biodiversity has broad societal implications. First, in agriculture, biodiversity is necessary for crops’ productivity—even their viability. Biodiverse conditions mean ample pollinators, species variety (to avoid pests and disease) and soil and water quality. Biodiversity in marine ecosystems is critical because, for one, the ocean is an important source of food worldwide; fish account for 17% of global meat consumption.2 Coastal mangroves, wetlands and reefs reduce erosion and storm damage, filter runoff from land and serve as nurseries for fish.

Healthy natural environments also draw tourism, an economic engine for many countries. Biodiverse land and sea habitats are critical carbon sinks, too, historically pulling 59% of carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere. These natural carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of C02 in the atmosphere by the end of the century under medium and high emissions scenarios.3

Globally, biodiversity has been declining. It continues to be threatened as the number of species and habitats shrinks. Between 1970 and 2016, wildlife populations declined by 68%.4 Extinction is also completely eliminating some species, creating irreversible biodiversity loss. Current extinction rates are 100 times baseline rates, an order of magnitude that qualifies as a mass extinction event (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: Trends in global extinction rates and land use

Two bars show the rising loss of species over time, from 140 total 1500-1900 and rising to 617 extinctions by 2014. Left axis shows habitat loss shot up to 5 billion hecatres over the period.

Biodiversity loss has financial impacts: The cost of recent losses of ecosystem services has been estimated at USD 4 trillion–USD 20 trillion per year. Land degradation is estimated to cost USD 6 trillion–USD 11 trillion per year, and oceanic degradation USD 200 billion per year.6, 7, 8

Many schoolchildren have learned about the dodo bird in Mauritius, which went extinct in 1681 due to overharvesting, loss of habitat from land use changes and competition from invasive species. Today, there are five main threats to global biodiversity, here ranked by their negative impact (Exhibit 2).9

Exhibit 2: Five main threats to biodiversity

A table shows main threats to biodiversity, ranked by severity. From most threatening: land and sea use; overharvesting; climate change, pollution and invasive species.

To date, climate change has already caused losses of species, increased disease, extinction, loss of habitat and declines in ecosystem services.10 Major factors in biodiversity loss are:

Climate extremes: Heat waves on land or in the water, wildfire and drought.

Changing average conditions: Sea-level rise, loss of sea ice and snow, and changes in temperature or precipitation.

Over the next century, climate change will become the top threat to biodiversity on its own and as a threat multiplier, worsening other forces and making ecosystems less resilient.11

In a steady climate, ecosystems adapt to ambient conditions of temperature, water availability and seasons. A changing climate alters the key conditions that species and ecosystems need to thrive, leading to shifts in where species reside and in the structure of ecosystems. Eventually, climate change can cause ecosystems to cross over tipping points: thresholds that, once surpassed, lead to irreversible loss. Some regions are more at risk due to the physical restrictions on migration for species, leading to local extinctions (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3: Plant and animal species threatened with extinction (%) by type of environment

A table shows percentage of species threatened, by habitat type: On islands, 100%; in mountains, 84%; in water, especially the Mediterranean, 54%.

To preserve biodiversity, mitigating climate warming—by limiting future emissions—is paramount.

Tracking whether and how much an investment is impacting climate change mitigation is reasonably easy, using issuers’ reductions in C02 emissions and their equivalents. Tracking the impact of biodiversity initiatives is more complicated, however, and requires a multitude of metrics, depending on the desired impact. Investors can track either biodiversity enhancement or progress toward reducing biodiversity threats.

Enhancing biodiversity: Emerging technologies are leveraging satellite or lidar (light detection and ranging, comparable to radar using lasers) monitoring of land cover and habitats, along with machine learning. These allow for tracking deforestation on land, in mangrove forests on shores and other aspects of ecosystem health globally. Sustainable agriculture can improve soil and local ecosystem health while increasing productivity per unit of land or water and can be tracked with sensors, satellite data and production metrics.

New financial accounting and capital structures are also being developed. They look to incorporate ecosystems into “nature asset companies” focused on reporting their ecosystem services metrics. Reporting would draw on scientific assessments of these companies’ impact and value, as well as their natural carbon sequestration and financials.13, 14

Reducing threats to biodiversity: Monitoring whether an investment is reducing threats to biodiversity is another tangible way to track an investment’s impact on biodiversity through time. Pollution and waste can be subjected to monitoring to understand a company’s, or government issuer’s, operational impact. In agriculture, this can include fertilizer use and runoff. A major danger across multiple sectors is plastic production. The majority of plastics manufactured to date have been discarded; only 8% have been recycled, and 24% are still in use (Exhibit 4).

Exhibit 4: Millions of tons of plastic accumulated worldwide (1950–2017) 

Pie chart shows status of 9.2 billion tons of plastics worldwide: 58% discarded; 24% in use, 8% recycled, 11% incinerated.

About one-third of all discarded plastic is located within 50 kilometers (km) of a coast, where it’s at risk of entering and disrupting the oceans. Mismanaged plastic waste can enter waterways and the ocean, floating and degrading over time into smaller pieces that cloud the water and are eaten by fish (Exhibit 5).16 Such coastal waste threatens the health of the marine ecosystem—the shore and ocean are crucial spots where water, nutrients, land and air interact to sustain important plant and animal life. Plastic waste can harm or kill marine animals when they are entangled in or consume it.

Exhibit 5: How plastic enters the world’s oceans 

Four stages of plastic waste are shown with tonnage: 27 million tons globally total; 100 million tons reach the coast; 32 million tons are mismanaged there; 8 million tons enter oceans

The risk of continued biodiversity loss is profound not just for nature but for financial stability. The issue has caught the attention of, among others, the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System, whose recently released statement said: “Biodiversity loss could have significant microeconomic implications. Failure to account for, mitigate and adapt to these implications is a source of risks relevant for financial stability.”18

As is the case with climate change, biodiversity loss poses two major risks to the financial system:

  • Biological risk : Risks associated with the loss of ecosystem services: raw materials; the regulation of climate, water, pollution and disease; recreation; tourism; and human health. These tangible biological damages (like the physical risks of climate change) are caused by the changing natural environment via the threats shown in Exhibit 2.
  • Biodiversity transition risk : Risks associated with the transition to a low biodiversity impact economy. These will potentially alter business practices and investment metrics, leading to the devaluation of some assets.

Global commitments have already been made to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity. In the lead-up to COP26, the annual United Nations climate conference, in 2021, several countries made “30 x 30” pledges: to conserve 30% of their lands and waters by 2030. At the 2021 meeting, more than 100 countries agreed to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

Another gathering, the June 2021 Group of 7 meeting, ended with member countries adopting a the 2030 Nature Compact. It covers conservation, ending deforestation, reducing marine litter and halting the illegal trade in wildlife. And at the March 2022 United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi, attendees made an agreement to restrict plastic waste, with a goal of developing an internationally binding treaty by 2024.

These commitments are likely to spur nations to pass country-level policies to improve biodiversity and address plastics. As international treaties spur a transition on biodiversity, the biological and biodiversity transition risks will be actualized, requiring investors to seek out metrics to monitor biodiversity action. Companies working to improve biodiversity health or minimize harmful impacts on it may present new investing opportunities.

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