Advancing corporate biodiversity accountability

Businesses are beginning to recognise that declines in biodiversity associated with their operations can be bad for business. That is, many businesses, indeed even the World Economic Forum, are starting to view biodiversity loss as a risk to business operations – threatening operational productivity, access to finance, regulatory compliance, and  business reputation. A public signal of businesses acknowledging biodiversity as a material risk is when they make commitments to or account for their influence on biodiversity in sustainability reporting.

In a recently published study in Conservation Biology, Dr Joe Bull and Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland and I, undertook an analysis of the current state of corporate biodiversity accountability. To do this we turned to some of the world’s largest companies – the Global Fortune 500, to better understand their global commitments and actions for biodiversity, as published through their sustainability reports. We assessed the sustainability reports of the top 100 of the 2016 Fortune 500 Global companies (hereafter the Fortune 100), to understand what commitments, activities, and biodiversity performance businesses are publicly disclosing.

Our study offers a global snapshot of the biggest corporations around the world, across multiple sectors of business, and revealed some surprising results:

Fig 1

Businesses mentioning & making commitments for biodiversity

Of the top Fortune 100 companies, 86 have publicly available sustainability reports. We found that almost half (49) of the Fortune 100 companies mentioned ‘biodiversity’, ‘nature’, ‘species’, or ‘ecosystem’ in their sustainability reports. This could be as brief as a single mention in the context of other environmental issues (e.g., climate), through to a dedicated biodiversity chapter, with clear biodiversity commitment(s) and disclosure of biodiversity-related activities.

Whilst this figure of 49 is impressive, when we took a closer look at which companies were making commitments that were specific, measurable & time bound, we found that only 5 of the Fortune 100 did so (Walmart, Hewlett Packard, AXA, Nestlé and Carrefour). For example, Walmart’s commitment: “To conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land occupied by Walmart U.S. through 2015“. Beyond Walmart’s commitment, none of the remaining Fortune 100 had adopted quantifiable biodiversity commitments (e.g., no net loss or better), unlike the small but rising number of businesses outside of the Fortune 100.

An absence of clearly defined corporate biodiversity commitments means that it is impossible to measure whether businesses are genuinely making progress in relation to managing their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity, and whether they are contributing to international goals to halt the loss of biodiversity. In comparison, there has been much greater adoption of science-based climate commitments made by companies committing to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement within the next decade.

Twenty-four of the 49 companies that mentioned biodiversity made links with the biodiversity-focused Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs 14 & 15). This is far greater than the 6 companies that acknowledged the Convention on Biological Diversity (the international policy instrument for biodiversity). Although not intended as a reporting framework, the SDGs resonate with the private sector and are already clearly being used to frame their sustainability commitments and activities.

Business actions for biodiversity

The Fortune 100 companies that mentioned biodiversity disclosed a diverse range of activities that they are undertaking for biodiversity. Activities included managing or preventing impacts, protecting and restoring biodiversity, monitoring biodiversity, engaging and connecting people with biodiversity, and investing in biodiversity. These activities and areas of disclosure are far greater than the voluntary areas of biodiversity disclosure recommended by the Global Reporting Initiative.

Forty-nine of the Fortune 100 companies disclosed information about their activities qualitatively, involving short case study narratives or general descriptions in sustainability reports. Only 9 companies provided quantitative performance indicators associated with descriptions. We did not find any companies that reported on quantitative outcomes of their activities for biodiversity (e.g., whether ecosystem condition improved, or species abundance increased), making it difficult to assess whether business actions are achieving positive outcomes for nature.

How can we advance corporate biodiversity accountability?

Our assessment of the 2016 Fortune 100 Global companies has revealed that big businesses are taking notice of biodiversity, but the commitments made, activities undertaken and information disclosed about biodiversity in sustainability reports are incredibly variable. There is clearly room for improvement, and in our paper we show how approaches from conservation science can help advance corporate biodiversity accountability.

Conservation scientists have spent decades developing processes and tools to help public sector organisations effectively measure, evaluate & act on biodiversity performance. This science can help advance corporate biodiversity accountability through helping businesses clarify and deepen their commitments to biodiversity, and take action for biodiversity where most urgent attention is needed:

Fig 2Frameworks (like structured decision making and the mitigation hierarchy), and approaches to indicator development (like Essential Biodiversity Variables and systems to measure state, pressure and response) can help the private sector clarify and measure their commitments to biodiversity. Also, scientific studies can help direct corporate action in conservation priority areas by avoiding impacting the most threatened species and ecosystems, and helping conserve the last of the wilderness areas.

What’s next?

This study represents just the beginning of our applied research into corporate biodiversity accountability. Now that we understand how businesses currently treat biodiversity in their public reporting, we can work in a more targeted way with businesses to help them more rapidly advance their corporate biodiversity accountability. Some critical areas we are already beginning to work with business on include developing science-based corporate biodiversity commitments, and robust and relevant quantitative biodiversity indicators for business. With the “biodiversity policy super-year” of 2020 rapidly approaching, we believe that now is the time for conservation scientists to engage with and support businesses to play a critical role in setting the new agenda for a sustainable future for the planet, with biodiversity at its heart.

Boundary spanning at the science–policy interface: the practitioners’ perspectives

What does it mean to work in the science-policy interface? Recently I teamed up with boundary spanners from across the world to share our perspectives of individual, program & organizational boundary spanning, and explore how this is becoming a distinct & emerging practice. You can read about us and our experience of boundary spanning in our open access paper here:

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The “one” biodiversity indicator to rule them all: an impossible quest?

Blog by Prue Addison, Giulia Carbone and Nadine McCormick (originally posted on the IUCN website)


Many businesses seek to develop biodiversity indicators to inform business decision-making. However, nature is complex, and serious challenges exist to develop indicators that can cut through this complexity and display clear and simple measures of biodiversity through space and time that are relevant to business needs.

Current approaches to developing biodiversity indicators for businesses typically start with questions like “what single indicator should we use for biodiversity,” “how can a biodiversity indicator be made as simple as possible,” or “what ‘off the shelf’ biodiversity indicators could be adopted to meet business needs”. While these are important questions, we believe a better starting point is to understand the business context for developing and using biodiversity indicators.

More fundamental questions that should be asked first are: “how can I demonstrate what I have achieved in relation to my corporate biodiversity goal and objectives,” “what information is needed at different spatial scales to make management decisions,” “what does my audience need to know about my company’s biodiversity performance”? These questions promote a more fundamental understanding of the business context for developing and using biodiversity indicators.

Good practice in the science community suggests that indicators should always have a purpose, to answer a question that should lead to some change in management. It could be that many of the indicators currently in use are therefore redundant, and companies could redirect valuable resources in terms of time and financing to developing and testing more relevant indicators.

Differentiating between purpose, primary audience and spatial scale of assessment, we have currently identified a wide spectrum of applications of biodiversity indicators. For example, the 19 different applications identified so far range from biodiversity screening in pre-development at a site level for internal operations and environmental managers, to reporting on biodiversity performance of investments to external shareholders and lenders. These applications can and should lead to very different biodiversity indicators being developed to meet business needs.

Several IUCN resolutions passed recently by IUCN Members at the 2016 World Conservation Congress frame the approach of this project. In particular, one group of resolutions focus on best practices and tools recommended for business. It includes a specific resolution on Strengthening corporate biodiversity measurement, valuation and reporting that calls on IUCN to “facilitate Members to join forces and collaborate with businesses to develop a common framework and set of principles on how to measure, value and report on biodiversity in order to improve, standardise and promote corporate biodiversity reporting”.

IUCN and Oxford University have a shared interest in bringing the latest thinking from the conservation community and science to business. We have come together to clarify the variety of applications, where biodiversity indicators are currently used by businesses and may be adopted in the future. Biodiversity indicators will not be developed in the initial phase of the project.

Rather, this project seeks to define the spectrum of applications where businesses use biodiversity indicators and clarify the purpose and intended stakeholders behind them. This first step will be used as the foundation for a recommended process to guide companies and conservation organisations in the development of fit-for-purpose biodiversity indicators where gaps have been identified.

Like many working in this area, we believe that indicators should be developed in a robust way, and to be effective, their interpretation should always be simple. On the other hand, the construction of indicators need not be simple, it depends on the complexity of the system you are trying to understand and/or manage.

Indicator construction is the domain of science and we plan to draw on the experience within the IUCN network and at Oxford University. Having spoken to several companies on this already, we know that they are eager to seek the advice of the applied scientists, who have the processes, tools and data to share.

We hope our focus on how to develop relevant indicators as levers of change will make a unique contribution that can add-value to business. We look forward to working with others   over the coming months to frame a process for business that will strengthen their decision making around biodiversity.

About the authors:  Prue Addison is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science in the UK.  Giulia Carbone is Deputy Director, and Nadine McCormick a Programme Officer, for IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme, based in Switzerland.  

Decision triggers for evidence-based conservation management of natural systems: Research Papers & PhD opportunity!

Many conservation organisations are striving to undertake evidence-based management to help guide effective management of natural systems. This is where the best available evidence, like ecological research or monitoring data, are used to support management decisions. An important feature of evidence-based management is that it can assist conservation practitioners in making often difficult decisions about when to intervene in a system to prevent undesirable changes.

Decision triggers are one approach that can be useful to help link monitoring data with management decisions. Decision triggers represent a point or zone in the status of a monitored variable indicating when management intervention is required to address undesirable ecosystem changes (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Decision triggers (horizontal dashed lines) representing a target for management intervention.

In a collaborative project with Dr Kelly de Bie and Dr Carly Cook, we have been exploring with conservation practitioners from Australia and New Zealand how decision triggers could be applied to support evidence-based management of natural systems. Through a series of three papers we explored (Figure 2):

1) The science behind decision triggers, and why conservation scientists are embracing the concept (see our Biological Conservation paper).

2) Conservation practitioners’ perspectives on the current use and potential future application of decision triggers for protected area management (see our Journal of Applied Ecology paper).

3) Guidance for practitioners to integrate decision triggers within existing conservation planning & management frameworks, and recommended tools to help develop decision triggers (see our final paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology).

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Figure 2. Exploring decision triggers for evidence-based management. Summary of 3 papers.


Our studies have found that there is support from both researchers and practitioners for the use of decision triggers in the management of natural systems. However, setting meaningful decision triggers for management remains a daunting task.

In our final paper, we draw on the depth of existing management, evaluation and conservation planning frameworks designed to promote adaptive decision-making processes, to illustrate critical stages to integrate evidence in decision-making, and highlight where development and implementation of decision triggers fits in. Importantly, we also identify a range of methods for setting decision triggers that are suitable for different management contexts (ranging from data-rich and data-poor environments, and decisions involving single vs. multiple management objectives).

We believe that decision triggers can be integrated into existing frameworks, and if applied in practice will help fill a critical gap in evidence-based conservation – helping close the loop between monitoring and management action.

To help continue this great collaborative project, we are offering a fully funded PhD scholarship to work with our team and led by Dr Carly Cook at Monash University. The candidate will undertake an innovative project investigating the development of triggers for management action, to guide decisions about when to intervene in the management of threatened species. Please see Carly Cook’s PhD opportunities page for more information.







Ideas to Impact program at the Saïd Business School

Recently I joined the Ideas to Impact program at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. This program was an enterprise skills initiative offered to four postdoctoral researchers from the University of Oxford, who were welcomed into the executive MBA elective course ‘Strategy & Innovation’ at the business school.

This was an incredible opportunity to be immersed in the business world, and learn about all things strategy and innovation – from the evolution of markets, disruption, ecosystems for innovation, and the architecture of social networks. I’d like to thank the MPLS Division and the Saïd Business School (especially Professor Marc Vantresca) for offering this incredible opportunity, and the executive MBA cohort for welcoming us into their classroom.

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How conservation science can help progress corporate biodiversity accounting

Many businesses are beginning to account for their impacts and dependencies on nature, through approaches like natural capital accounting. Whilst accounting approaches are well developed for some aspects of natural capital, other critical aspects like biodiversity are yet to be fully accounted in business decision-making.

Many business leaders recognize the importance of accounting for biodiversity, but are currently grappling with how to distill and act on information about complex and dynamic natural systems that interact with all levels of their business. They are facing challenges like how to effectively measure, evaluate and act on biodiversity performance from site- to corporate-level.

The field of conservation science has emerged as a discipline to address one of the greatest environmental challenges – the continued loss of biodiversity around the globe. This field of research is incredibly diverse and includes approaches to help protect, conserve and even trade nature. Across this spectrum of conservation practice, conservation scientists have been particularly effective at developing processes and tools that help governments and NGOs effectively measure, evaluate and act on biodiversity performance.

There are many tools from conservation science toolbox, that can help address the challenges that businesses are grappling with relating to measuring, evaluating and acting on biodiversity performance, such as:

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.17.56The conservation science that can address business challenges already exists, but remains a largely untapped resource in Business and Biodiversity discussions.

This week I will be attending the EU Business and Biodiversity conference, where I will be talking to participants about the potential for conservation science approaches to address Business and Biodiversity challenges. I’ll be helping facilitate the session on ‘how to set the ambition level’ for businesses, where I’ll be sharing some insights from conservation science that can help businesses begin to think critically about their ambition for minimizing impacts on biodiversity and contribute to global efforts to conserve biodiversity.

To find out more about the conservation science toolbox that can help address the challenges that businesses are grappling with relating to measuring, evaluating and acting on biodiversity performance, read my latest KE@ICCS Brief Science note.

You can also follow the EU Business and Biodiversity conference conversation from afar on Twitter using the hastags: #BBNC17 #EUbiodiversity.

Business & Biodiversity session at the International Congress for Conservation Biology, Colombia

B&B session twitter promotionOn Monday 24 July, Prue Addison and Joe Bull will be hosting a special symposium at ICCB on “Developing the scientific basis that enables businesses to support biodiversity conservation”. The symposium will be run on Monday, from 14.30 – 16.00, in Sala 103.

Symposium background:

The fundamental goal of conservation science is to provide the technical understanding and tools that enable humanity to conserve biodiversity. End-users of conservation science include international policymakers, governments, and NGOs. More recently, an important end-user of conservation science has emerged – businesses, an increasing number of which seek to take an active role in biodiversity conservation.

Businesses face serious barriers that prevent them from supporting biodiversity conservation. These barriers are scientific, as much as social and economic, including: establishing metrics for objectively evaluating and reporting on biodiversity performance; methods for comparing performance across multiple scales; and, managing biodiversity in the face of uncertainty. In fact, efforts to conserve biodiversity as part of business operations expose gaps in the scientific basis underlying conservation science more generally.

In this symposium, we will discuss ‘business and biodiversity’ though the lens of topics including ‘no net loss’ conservation mechanisms (e.g. biodiversity offsetting), natural capital accounting, and factoring industry into landscape conservation planning. The symposium will showcase recent developments in the ‘business and biodiversity’ research field, identify critical research gaps, and will provide an opportunity for delegates to join discussions around engaging businesses more meaningfully in applied conservation.

Presentations include:

Prue Addison, University of Oxford “Engaging with business to revolutionize biodiversity conservation”

Fabien Quétier, Biotope “Developing robust biodiversity indicators for private sector conservation and natural capital accounting”

Eugenie Regan, The Biodiversity Consultancy “What biodiversity data does business need?”

E.J. Milner-Gulland (on behalf of Joe W. Bull), University of Copenhagen “A quantitative worldwide assessment of biodiversity offsetting”

Martine Maron, University of Queensland “Resolving controversies in compensatory conservation”

If you are attending ICCB, please join our symposium!

If you won’t be at ICCB, please follow the live tweeting from our symposium using the hashtags #ICCB2017 #Business & #Biodiversity, or follow our speakers: @prueaddison, @Biotope_, @EugenieRegan, @TBCBiodiversity, @EJMilnerGulland, @wildbusiness, @martine_maron.

NERC Planet Earth magazine – Making Clean Growth Happen

NERC Planet Earth

The Natural Environment Research Council Planet Earth magazine has just been released, and it’s all about biodiversity! This magazine is full of interesting articles about what biodiversity is, and illustrates some current NERC research on biodiversity. It also features some NERC Knowledge Exchange fellowship work, which is helping connect biodiversity research to address businesses challenges. Check out the full magazine here or the article on Making Clean Growth Happen, which features my work to help multi-national businesses understand and minimise their impacts on biodiversity.

International Day of Biological Diversity: Celebrating the great research from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

Happy International Day of Biological Diversity! I am a lucky conservation scientist who is working at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford. I spend a lot of time working with business and government decision-makers to help them understand and manage environmental impacts, by using conservation science. This is all done with my ultimate aim of helping to balance sustainable development with the conservation of biodiversity.

ICCS members and colleagues at the 2016 Interdisciplinary Conservation Network workshop at the University of Oxford. Including featured authors: Sam Lloyd, Joe Bull, and E.J. Milner-Gulland.
To celebrate International day of Biological Diversity, I thought I’d highlight some of the amazing ICCS research that focuses on dealing with uncertainty in understanding and managing nature. These are just a few papers from this year that I think are critically relevant to ongoing work to conserve biodiversity:

E.J. Milner-Gulland: embracing uncertainty in environmental monitoring and management

E.J. and Katriona Shea recently provided a great commentary on how applied ecologists and conservation scientists can and should embrace uncertainty. They used some neat conservation examples from around the world to illustrate some of the common traps that applied ecologists can fall into. These include ignoring uncertainty all together, putting too much faith in their models, and failing to set clear objectives for monitoring and management. To overcome these uncertainty traps they point to a range of practical approaches to help practitioners, such as: using decision theory to frame the purpose of ecological monitoring and management more carefully, using virtual experiments to explore critical uncertainties prior to undertaking monitoring and management, and using a wider suite of models that account for uncertainty.

This paper is really relevant for conservation scientists developing models and helping support conservation decision-making. You can read their paper here.

Mike Burgass: navigating uncertainty in composite indicators

Mike and his co-authors (Ben Halpern, Emily Nicholson, and E.J. Milner-Gulland) undertook a comprehensive review of the use of composite indicators that are used to measure and track environmental systems (just like the Ocean Health Index, which is used to measure how healthy our oceans are around the world). They illustrated how uncertainty can creep into composite indicators in many different ways. There is the uncertainty associated with the monitoring data used to inform an indicator value, the construction of composite indicators (aggregating lots of individual indicators), and in post-development in the way that composite indicators are communicated. They provide a suite of solutions to help address uncertainty in composite indicators to ensure they can be used more confidently in environmental management.

This paper is really relevant for conservation scientists developing composite indicators for applied purposes. This is also incredibly relevant to businesses seeking to develop biodiversity metrics, which will often end up being a composite metric of multiple attributes of biodiversity (e.g., combining species and ecosystem information). You can read their paper here.

Joe Bull and Sam Lloyd: uncertainty and multipliers in sustainable development

In the world of sustainable development, goals like ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ of biodiversity are being set to ensure that biodiversity losses from development are compensated with gains through the application of the mitigation hierarchy. To deal with uncertainty (e.g., in natural systems, and the data and models used to estimate biodiversity gains and losses), multipliers are used in the calculation of biodiversity mitigation measures. The more uncertain the ecological outcome, the greater the multiplier, and thus the greater the mitigation measure should be. In their review paper, Joe, Sam and their colleague Neils Strange explore the gap that exists between the theory of how multipliers should be used and what the reality is in practice. Multiplier values should theoretically be set at the tens or hundreds when considering ecological uncertainties. But multipliers used in offset and biodiversity policies and projects around the world are often less than ten. Joe and his colleagues recommend that there will be many occasions where larger multipliers should be used in practice, and these relate not only to ecological considerations, but also social, ethical and governance considerations.

This paper is relevant to all businesses considering commitments like ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ of biodiversity, as it explains how uncertainty in natural systems is commonly underestimated. If uncertainty is not addressed systematically by practitioners and businesses implementing biodiversity ‘no net loss’ and ‘net gain’ projects then there will be a substantial undermining of biodiversity conservation efforts globally. You can read their paper here.

Papers cited in this blog:

Bull, J.W., Lloyd, S.P., Strange, N. (2017) Implementation gap between the theory and practice of biodiversity offset multipliers. Conservation Letters, DOI: 10.1111/conl.12335

Burgass, M., Halpern, B., Nicholson, E., Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2017) Exposing and navigating uncertainty in composite indicators. Ecological Indicators, 75, 268-278

Milner-Gulland, E. J. and Shea, K. (2017), Embracing uncertainty in applied ecology. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12887

What needs to change to undertake quantitative assessment of biodiversity outcomes in protected areas

I am very happy to announce the final paper from my PhD has now been published!

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Here is a brief outline of the paper:

Protected area management effectiveness (PAME) evaluation is increasingly undertaken to evaluate governance, assess conservation outcomes and inform evidence-based management of protected areas (PAs). Within PAME, quantitative approaches to assess biodiversity outcomes are now emerging, where biological monitoring data are directly assessed against quantitative (numerically defined) condition categories (termed quantitative condition assessments). However, more commonly qualitative condition assessments are employed in PAME, which use descriptive condition categories and are evaluated largely with expert judgement that can be subject to a range of biases, such as linguistic uncertainty and overconfidence.

Despite the benefits of increased transparency and repeatability of evaluations, quantitative condition assessments are rarely used in PAME. To understand why, we interviewed practitioners from all Australian marine protected area (MPA) networks, which have access to long-term biological monitoring data and are developing or conducting PAME evaluations.

Our research revealed that there is a desire within management agencies to implement quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes in Australian MPAs. However, practitioners report many challenges in transitioning from undertaking qualitative to quantitative condition assessments of biodiversity outcomes, which are hampering progress. Challenges include a lack of agency capacity (staff numbers and money), knowledge gaps, and diminishing public and political support for PAs. We point to opportunities to target strategies that will assist agencies overcome these challenges, including new decision support tools, approaches to better finance conservation efforts, and to promote more management relevant science.

Please follow this open access link to access this paper:

If you’d like to see some of my other PhD research, please click the links below:

Addison P.F.E., Flander L.B., Cook C.N. (2017) Towards quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes: insights from Australian marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 198, 183–191.

Addison, P.F.E., Flander, L. B., Cook, C.N. (2015) Are we missing the boat? Current uses of long-term biological monitoring data in the evaluation and management of marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 149, 148–156.

Addison, P.F.E, de Bie, K., Rumpff, L. (2015) Setting conservation management thresholds using a novel participatory modelling approach. Conservation Biology, 29, 1411–1422.

Addison, P. F. E., Rumpff, L., Bau, S. S., Carey, J. M., Chee, Y. E., Jarrad, F., McBride, M. F., and Burgman, M. A. (2013). Practical solutions for making models indispensable in conservation decision-making. Diversity and Distributions. Special issue on: Perspectives and tools for conservation risk analysis.  19, 490–502.