Environmental challenges

Biodiversity conservation: (another) key environmental issue

Global biodiversity is declining at a rate unprecedented in human history. The publication in May 2019 of a deeply concerning first assessment report on global ecosystems has drawn the attention of the public, authorities and companies to a phenomenon that has long been considered of secondary importance. We take a look at this major challenge and the approaches being taken to meet it.

Published on 24 November 2023


Awareness of the danger threatening the planet has grown – very gradually – with the regular publication of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports since 1990. As its name suggests, the work of this community of experts is focused on climate change and overlooks the impact on biodiversity. We had to wait nearly three decades for the first report of comparable scope from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Its findings are absolutely clear. “This first IPBES report is extremely alarming,” says Marina Levy, an oceanographer specialising in climate and biodiversity at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). “The decline in biodiversity keeps on accelerating. Species are disappearing at a frightening rate.” Yet this reality is still often misunderstood. “Media coverage tends to play on people’s emotions by highlighting the disappearance of mammals, but the issues are much broader. A lot of lesser-known species, often microscopic ones, for example, are starting to disappear from the seas, even though they provide the foundations of our ecosystems – and are therefore essential for our health, food security and well-being.

The report’s authors point to five main reasons for this situation. In order of importance, they are changes in land and sea use, the direct exploitation of certain species, climate change, pollution and invasive species. Apart from a few species (notably red coral), climate change is not currently the main cause of biodiversity loss. However, projections show that it will become so in the next 15 to 20 years. While the deteriorating climate has a direct impact on biodiversity, the report also highlights the interconnection between climate change and biodiversity… “Biodiversity is very useful to us,” explains Marina Levy. “We talk about ecosystem services, a concept that includes regulating the climate and climate-related hazards, in particular. Ecosystems play an important role in the carbon cycle, which has direct consequences for climate regulation. So, they can protect us from the impact of storms, cyclones, rising water levels, etc.”

More broadly, the current degradation of the natural environment also has economic, health and social repercussions. Another issue currently in the spotlight is directly related to this phenomenon: food security. The rise in ocean temperatures is affecting the size and number of fish and leading to mass migrations. A 2021 report by the WWF points out that a third of species around the world are currently threatened with extinction1.

The UN and European Union face the challenge of biodiversity

“Humanity is waging war on nature. We must rebuild our relationship with it2.” This statement by Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, sums up the tone of the first United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, held in September 2020. Along with declarations of intent, the event sought to create political momentum in three priority areas: the inclusion of nature-based solutions in post-Covid plans, the widespread engagement of economic and financial players in biodiversity as an issue, and the deployment of ever more ambitious policies to protect it. Another major meeting was held in September 2021 in Marseille: the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Aiming to be a decisive moment in the fight against biodiversity decline, the event witnessed the adoption of around 20 motions… whose impact has since been considered as only weak by the NGOs who took part. Hopes are now pinned on the 15th world conference on biodiversity (COP15) which, after four successive postponements caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, will finally be held from December 5 to 17 this year in Montreal, Canada.

What about practical initiatives? As with the climate issue, the European Union is aiming to play a leading role in this. Its latest move came on June 22, 2022, when the Commission put forward two legislative proposals as part of its biodiversity and “Farm to Table” strategies.

The plans, which must now be examined by the European Parliament and the Council, have two main objectives: to restore damaged ecosystems and revive nature throughout the EU by 20503, and to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and their associated risks by 50% by 20304. To meet the targets for restoring nature, the proposal includes legally binding biodiversity targets to be applied by member states in addition to existing legislation.

Companies and investors on the front line

While such progress is far from negligible, it is not sufficient. Biodiversity is no different to any other environmental issue — given the scale of the challenge, the response has to be a collective one. Along with public authorities, corporations need to play a leading role in preserving biodiversity. “Companies are among the main polluters, and it’s essential for them to join in this effort,” insists Marina Levy. “They must fully play their part by calculating their emissions, so they can see where they can take action, and then measure the impact of that action on reducing their emissions.” She also calls for such strong measures to be increased across the board, including in areas such as energy consumption, building insulation, transport, food and respecting protected areas.  The world of finance is also expected to play a key role. “These firms must ensure that their capital is invested in green products and non-polluting companies. This is an extremely powerful lever for action.” That said, people need to be able to make informed decisions, which is why another aspect of this issue — the transparency of activities – is absolutely essential. Quantifying the impact of companies on biodiversity is both a complex and vitally important task. As with the example of “carbon equivalent emissions”, the aim is to deploy tools for measuring impacts on biodiversity. Significant efforts are currently being made on this decisive subject by public bodies, non-profit organisations, and companies5.

Schneider Electric: the first steps of a biodiversity strategy

An initiative on the subject is already underway at Schneider Electric. Determined to act, the Group has long been looking for solutions. A decisive step was taken with the discovery of the Global Biodiversity Score (GBS): a tool developed by CDC Biodiversité that enables companies and financial institutions to measure their biodiversity footprint. With the GBS, organisations can calculate one of the three essential dimensions of biodiversity: the abundance of ecosystems. “Thanks to this tool, we were able to launch our first study on the entire value chain of our activities, measuring the state of biodiversity and our impact on it,” explains Daniele Bufano, Sustainability Transformation Director at Schneider Electric. Having measured its carbon footprint for many years, the Group now had a unit of measurement, the MSA – Mean Species Abundance.km, which measures the average abundance of species in one square kilometre.

“We have now begun to understand our impact across the entire value chain, from the mine to the end of a product’s life. Our work has revealed that 85% of our impacts on biodiversity are due to climate change, which confirms the very strong link between deregulation in the climate area and biodiversity loss. For Schneider, reducing CO2 emissions is the primary means for improving biodiversity, which shows the importance of our carbon strategy in a new light.”

    Based on this work, Schneider Electric drew up a Biodiversity Pledge6 in 2021, with five priority objectives: to measure its impacts and publish the results transparently, to align with scientific recommendations, to reduce the impact of its direct operations – zero net biodiversity losses by 2030 – and to reduce the impacts of its value chain, both upstream and downstream. The key to this is a series of concrete initiatives, including the launch of a programme to ensure that 100% of sites implement a biodiversity preservation and restoration plan, the elimination of single-use plastic on site, and the use of 50% “green materials” in the upstream phase. However, Schneider Electric is also involved in downstream activities. “We sell energy efficiency — optimised solutions that reduce the amount of energy consumed during use. And reducing CO2 emissions is a direct benefit for biodiversity.” Such initiatives reflect the global effort that companies will need to make in the years ahead. Valuable for their direct effects on the environment, of course, but perhaps even more so because of the knock-on effects they can have on an entire sector.

      1. https://wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/freshwater_practice/the_world_s_forgotten_fishes/
      2. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-09-30/secretary-generals-remarks-united-nations-biodiversity-summit-delivered
      3. https://environment.ec.europa.eu/publications/nature-restoration-law_en
      4. https://food.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2022-06/pesticides_sud_eval_2022_reg_2022-305_en.pdf
      5. https://www.fondationbiodiversite.fr/indicateurs-et-outils-de-mesure-evaluer-limpact-des-activites-humaines-sur-la-biodiversite-la-frb-presente-ses-recommandations/
      6. https://www.se.com/ch/fr/download/document/Biodiversity_Pledge_EN/

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