World leaders are gathering in Montreal to discuss how to protect our planet’s biodiversity, and the issue is about to get similar attention to the need to cut carbon emissions at COP26 last year. The construction sector must be ready to respond

Jim White

Jim White is a principal consultant at Nature Positive, an environmental consultancy that is part of the RSK Group

The construction sector has responded gamely to the net zero challenge over the past year in particular. The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last autumn certainly drove this to a degree: this time last year it was hard to miss it, with scores of pledges from world leaders and corporates to cut carbon emissions made in the months leading up to, and during, the summit.

But, while cutting emissions has been generating most of the headlines, the need to protect and restore natural environments may have largely fallen by the wayside.

This, however, is set to change. In a few weeks’ time, COP15, the biodiversity equivalent of COP26, will be taking place in Montreal. World leaders will seek to agree a new set of global goals to protect nature as clear and measurable a set of objectives as those on climate.

>> Also read: How construction can help save the world

In the UK, the construction sector will have seen that domestic regulations designed to protect biodiversity have come under threat as part of a focus on new investment zones. But regardless of whether specific regulations in this country are relaxed or scrapped, the global mood music will be around what companies are doing to protect biodiversity.

Just as COP26 raised the bar on what businesses were doing to meet net zero, COP15 is set to have a similar impact in terms of shining a light on what can be done to safeguard nature. Investors and clients will be watching what companies are doing for biodiversity just as they have done on emissions.

Currently, this issue lags way behind in terms of business priorities. In an assessment of FTSE100 UK companies undertaken by Nature Positive, we found that one in three firms were not taking any steps to address their impact on the natural world.

Meanwhile, a fifth of those companies that did at least recognise biodiversity were arguably guilty of greenwashing – using it as a buzzword with little or no substance behind it.

Signs of what construction companies can expect to have to do are starting to become clearer

We found that the sectors that were performing well tended to be those who either had a very obvious relationship with biodiversity, or those which were subject to some form of regulation – such as real estate or construction, because of the government’s mandatory biodiversity net gain requirement.

But the industry still needs to do more. Signs of what construction companies can expect to have to do are starting to become clearer.

Last month, at a pre-COP15 meeting, the UK co-introduced the 10-point plan for financing biodiversity. This requires businesses to assess and disclose their nature-related risks and dependencies, and to set quantitative targets to not only reduce negative impacts but increase positive impacts as well. It also commits governments to develop the appropriate regulatory and policy frameworks to facilitate this.

Although Science-Based Targets for Nature and the Taskforce for Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) are both still in development, I expect COP15 to give these initiatives momentum.

Disclosure of climate-related financial information aligned with the Taskforce on Climate-related Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations has accelerated over the past couple of years, so the logical next step will be greater adoption of nature-related information under TNFD.

At Nature Positive, we have been helping a number of construction and infrastructure companies to implement biodiversity strategies. So, what could companies start doing now to be ready for policy changes?

Undertake full biodiversity audits

Our report on the FTSE100 companies showed that only a quarter of firms had undertaken full biodiversity audits, but these tended to be at a project level or of their direct operations only. Just 12 referred to auditing their full supply chain, even though emissions involving supply chains can be significantly higher in comparison to direct emissions.

By restricting their analysis to their direct impacts, companies cannot truly understand their impact on nature. They may also fail to recognise some of their biggest sustainability challenges.

Set an overarching corporate vision that goes beyond reducing negative impact

Set an ambitious overarching corporate vision for reducing biodiversity impacts and delivering a nature-positive outcome. As the 10-point plan for financing biodiversity made clear, this needs to commit to making positive impacts, not just reducing negative ones. Interpret and prioritise the impacts and dependencies for your business as a whole, and maximise collaboration across your company’s value chain.

Formulate a biodiversity strategy

This should set meaningful targets for improving performance on biodiversity within the wider corporate social responsibility approach. Follow the mitigation hierarchy of avoid, minimise, restore and offset.

Interpret and prioritise the impacts and dependencies of your business to work out where you can make the biggest difference. Implement the biodiversity strategy by working towards defined goals through actively reducing impacts on biodiversity throughout the supply chain; monitor progress towards targets and aggregate to report against selected indicators; and review success and adapt procedures, if necessary, in the light of emerging evidence.

Examples of good practice already exist. Barratt Developments, Berkeley Group Holdings and Taylor Wimpey have all communicated their intention to hit biodiversity net gain requirements on their sites. Barratt is creating green sites and wildlife gardens as part of its developments.

Protecting biodiversity may have fallen behind cutting carbon emissions in terms of government and business priorities until now – but COP15 means the construction industry must now prepare for change.

Jim White is a principal consultant at Nature Positive, an environmental consultancy and part of the RSK Group