2020 was supposed to be the year that governments, business leaders and civil society came together to report back on the past decade’s worth of progress on addressing the biodiversity crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened and most of the big meetings scheduled for 2020 were scaled down or postponed until 2021. But that doesn’t mean 2020 hasn’t been an eventful year for biodiversity conservation efforts. Perhaps most significantly, COVID has prompted a reevaluation of our relationship with the world around us, including how we interact with other species and their habitats.
According to Simon Zadek, chair of the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative, the pandemic may ultimately come to be seen as a tipping point in long-running efforts to persuade the financial sector to factor nature and biodiversity into decision-making. In recent years, incorporating carbon emissions into financial decisions had become mainstream among corporations, governments and development finance institutions (DFIs), but biodiversity remained a remote, esoteric consideration. But COVID-19 changed that.
Zadek recalls a meeting he had in January 2020 with a group of financial institutions to discuss integrating nature-based metrics and data into frameworks and standards. Their response, according to Zadek, was they had already expended all their political capital persuading decision-makers on the need to account for carbon. They could not “now tell them that they need to look at nature too.”
Ten months later that same group was “about to produce a major piece of work on how to advance the data and metrics in measuring nature-related risk dependencies and impacts of financial institutions,” Zadek said. “We’re seeing a rapid pathway arc of acceptance that nature is the next in the tube … so that financial institutions can get really an understanding what those risks, dependencies and impacts are.”
California redwood forest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
With natural ecosystems being rapidly degraded and destroyed, as evidenced by the catastrophic fires around the globe this year, this shift was welcome news for Zadek, who’s been working to drive systemic change among financial institutions, governments and corporations for the better part of three decades. These efforts began with governance, labor and human rights, but have lately come to focus on getting public finance aligned with climate goals and nature stewardship.
In his current role as chair of the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative, Zadek has led a campaign to get biodiversity impacts incorporated into public and private sector financial decision-making. This effort takes a multipronged approach, including market innovation, accounting for biodiversity-related liability, integrating biodiversity policy into financial frameworks, public-facing campaigns, and analyzing how governments are responding to the COVID crisis. On that last point, the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative publishes a “Greenness of Stimulus Index” that evaluates the ecological sustainability of COVID stimulus programs.
“Finance for Biodiversity has done a rating, turning stimulus commitments into an index of the nature friendliness,” he said. “The results are not very positive.
“We’ve covered all of the G-20 countries and all of the European countries plus a few more and the bottom line is that only three or four countries have stimulus programs strongly linked to nature and climate. The vast array of those stimulus programs are either neutral or negative.”
Zadek says aligning global finance with nature conservation and restoration would bring transformative change that goes far beyond what conservation groups themselves can do alone.
“The conservation community tends to think about finance in terms of finance for conservation. That is, ‘How can we raise money to spend on conservation.’ That is a completely legitimate activity but it is ‘small beer,’” he said, noting that there are $350 trillion worth of financial assets in private capital and financial markets as well as $25 trillion to $30 trillion worth of annual public finance spending. “We need to move away from this rather narrow focus on raising money to spend on conservation and realize that it’s these far larger numbers that are really shaping nature outcomes.”
Zadek discussed these issues and more during a November 2020 conversation with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.