Nature Positive is one of the concepts being widely promoted as a framing for the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to be adopted by the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP15) in December 2022. It is referred to in three of the five alternative proposals for the 2030 Mission that is meant to lead to the 2050 Vision for a world of living in harmony with nature. The concept is also proposed in targets 18, 19.1 and Section H of the GBF.
But what does “nature positive” mean and how will it be measured? Who is benefiting from and supporting it? What is needed to achieve social-ecological justice for all people and biodiversity, and will Nature Positive respond deliver this?
What does Nature Positive mean?
The term “Nature Positive” might sound good, but its meaning is unclear in the context of the CBD.
The various definitions are vague and almost all refer to a future where there will be more “nature” than at present. One example is the IUCN definition: “A nature-positive future means that we, as a global society, halt and reverse the loss of nature measured from its current status, reducing future negative impacts alongside restoring and renewing nature, to put both living and non-living nature measurably on the path to recovery.” Other definitions are provided by WWF, UNDP, SCBD & UNEP-WCMC and naturepositive.org.
Let’s look at the term in detail. “Nature” isn’t defined by the CBD Convention text. In contrast, “biodiversity” and its categories – ecosystems and habitats, species and communities, and genomes and genes of social, scientific or economic importance – are clearly defined. “Nature” can be many things that are not biodiverse but do have “natural elements”, such as a monoculture plantation that lacks any ecosystem diversity but will still be called “nature” by many. Private sector actors pursuing greenwashing practices have exploited this lack of clarity.
“Positive” is even more ambiguous. While it implies an optimistic approach, it actually has more to do with the result of a mathematical exercise, of subtraction and addition of “nature”, which supposedly leads to a positive result. A document, subscribed by 13 global organisations, explaining the concept implies that it accepts further “unavoidable” destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems, expecting them to be offset by restoration or conservation. This compensation is planned to be bigger than the lost areas, ecosystems or species populations, and is therefore considered “Nature Positive” or a “net gain” of biodiversity.
Implications of the offsetting and “net” approaches
A “net” approach implies that it’s alright to continue losing nature, as long as it´s compensated elsewhere, and often later, by offsetting mechanisms. There are several problems with this approach:
- It fails to account for the loss of ecosystem functions and the benefits they provide to people.
- It assumes one type of ecosystem, species, and even sacred grounds for Indigenous Peoples, can be compensated by others, ignoring the uniqueness of each.
- Past experiences of offsetting biodiversity have been mostly unsuccessful1,2,3. The majority of biodiversity offsetting projects use widely criticized area-based outcome measures which have proven to be highly inefficient in wetland offsetting and completely failed to perform for forested habitats1.
- There are two main classes of offsets – habitat restoration and avoided loss.
- Habitat restoration offsets aim to achieve a level of ecological restoration that is actually impossible. Many of the expectations set by current restoration offset policies are unsupported by evidence4. Time lags, uncertainty in the outcomes and weak measurability limit the technical success of offsets. Also, highly complex ecosystems are more difficult to restore, which is why there are almost no examples of successful restoration in forested and marine ecosystems1,2. Other limitations of this kind of offset relate to the time lag between the loss and gain.
- Avoided loss offsets provide compensation through “the removal of threatening processes in the offset areas”, often through the establishment of protected areas. Here the “gains” must necessarily rely on the uncertain probability of biodiversity loss at the offset site in the absence of additional protection. Further problems are the lack of compliance mechanisms and displacement of damaging activities5. While the immediate loss is certain, it is uncertain that the offset area would have been lost since many proposed offset sites are unlikely ever to be developed. Even if the offset areas might be developed, their loss should be prevented without counting as an offset.
- The impact of offsetting on Indigenous Peoples, local communities, women, and youth is considerable. There are frequent human rights abuses because these groups are excluded from offset areas, while only tiny percentages of climate and biodiversity finance reach Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs), despite their major role in the conservation of intact ecosystems.
- Several studies suggest that the total amount of planned offsets needed to respond to infrastructure and industry development is unrealistically high.2
Species, ecosystems, their functions, and the benefits they provide to people can’t be replaced. Once a species is extinct, it is gone forever. Similarly, once indigenous communities are displaced from their lands and obliged to migrate to cities, their language and culture risk being lost forever.
What do we know about the measurement of Nature Positive?
The proponents of Nature Positive claim it is a measurable concept that can serve as the biodiversity equivalent of 1.5°C for the climate. However, the proposed measurement of Nature Positive is extremely vague and allows cherry-picking of indicators. The three proposed basic measurements are:
- zero net loss of nature from 2020
- net positive improvement in nature by 2030
- full recovery of nature by 2050.
According to this proposal, achieving Nature Positive by 2030 requires outcomes that can be measured by quantifying the maintenance and improvement of natural processes, ecosystems and species over time. The proposal includes a list of metrics to choose from, including carbon storage and habitat extent.
Many corporate actors would choose to measure carbon storage and habitat extent because these are among the easiest to fulfill and can easily be applied with offsetting schemes. However, these metrics are not the best indicators for biodiversity and ecosystem functions. For example, carbon sequestration can be done through tree plantations with species that capture large amounts of carbon but are very poor for biodiversity outcomes6; and it has been demonstrated that metrics based on habitat attributes, such as extent, tend to be overly simplistic and do not fully capture individual species’ ecological needs, leading to the risk of trading away critical habitat7.
Who is benefitting from and supporting Nature Positive?
An increasing number of actors are rallying behind a Nature Positive framing. A coalition of organisations, including WWF, the IUCN WCPA, WRI, TNC, WCS, BirdLife International, Conservation International, Business for Nature and the WBCSD, among others, argues for the adoption of a “Nature-Positive Global Goal for Nature”. They suggest this goal should be combined with development and climate goals to create an integrated overarching direction for global agreements of an equitable, Nature Positive, carbon-neutral world.
There is also a call for governments to announce commitments related to Nature Positive. In 2021 the G7 leaders announced that “our world must become not only net zero but also nature positive, for the benefit of both people and the planet”. In the same year, the UK government committed to delivering a “nature-positive future” in response to the Dasgupta review.
The business sector is pushing for this language. One important reason is that strong regulatory measures to transform the economic systems responsible for biodiversity loss would be the most effective way to address the destruction of ecosystems. But such measures would affect the economic interests of corporations. Therefore, they seek lighter approaches, more focused on incentives and certification schemes.
At the same time, businesses also foresee profits from a Nature Positive economy: the Future of Nature and Business report (2020) estimates that a Nature Positive economy can unlock US$10 trillion of business opportunities by transforming the three economic systems responsible for almost 80% of nature loss: food, infrastructure, and energy.
What is needed to achieve social-ecological justice for all people and biodiversity, and will Nature Positive deliver this?
Social movements worldwide are uniting to demand global justice and equity. Social-ecological justice, which encompasses the complexity of the multifaceted crisis we face, should be at the core of any new approach to biodiversity conservation. Global inequalities – resulting from an unfair system focused on profit and not on people – need to be addressed in the upcoming Global Biodiversity Framework.
Bold, urgent measures to address the drivers of biodiversity loss are needed to make a shift toward transformative change. These include putting equity and rights-based approaches at the core of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The 2030 Mission must respond to this need.
Any approach guiding the GBF must deliver results for all people, especially those most connected to biodiversity, such as IPLCs, who are the best guardians of the world’s ecosystems. They can lead humanity on a path to reconciliation with nature. Yet, IPLCs are not properly included in the Nature Positive framing.
To properly protect biodiversity, ecosystem functions, ecological integrity, and the well-being of the communities who protect and depend on them must not be threatened further. Therefore, the 2030 Mission must not facilitate further destruction and must strongly regulate the actors behind ecological damage.
Given that IPLCs protect 80% of existing biodiversity, often by defending it with their lives, any framework that seriously wants to conserve biodiversity needs to take IPLCs and their human and land tenure rights seriously. These rights are not considered in any of the Nature Positive proposals.
Women and girls are custodians of precious knowledge and practices to manage biodiversity sustainably. Youth groups are implementing transformative change actions on the ground. Tellingly, the documents proposing Nature Positive hardly mention them.
A considerable amount of funding is already committed by governments and the private sector to the implementation of the Nature Positive approach. Meanwhile, rightsholders, their actions on the ground, traditional knowledge, and their fights for social-ecological justice remain underfunded. Funding commitments arising from the GBF should focus on these rightsholders and their actions to protect biodiversity, which have proven to be effective but need further promotion and support.
Nature Positive pretends to be an all-encompassing answer to orient the GBF. Yet a framework that aims to guide humanity on a path to transformative change needs to be based on equity and respect for all rightsholders and must take into account the best available scientific and traditional knowledge to protect biodiversity and the ecosystem functions that sustain all life on Earth. Nature Positive does not deliver this needed transformation.
On the contrary, any approach which benefits the business sector, safeguards corporate profits, and promotes offsetting will take humanity further away from a safe future. Unfortunately, the Nature Positive approach does precisely that.
1 zu Ermgassen, S. O., Baker, J., Griffiths, R. A., Strange, N., Struebig, M. J., & Bull, J. W. (2019). The ecological outcomes of biodiversity offsets under “no net loss” policies: A global review. Conservation Letters, 12(6).
2 Niner, H. J., & Randalls, S. (2021). Good enough for governance? Audit and marine biodiversity offsetting in Australia. Geoforum, 120, 38-45.
3 zu Ermgassen, S. O. S. E., Utamiputri, P., Bennun, L., Edwards, S., & Bull, J. W. (2019). The role of “no net loss” policies in conserving biodiversity threatened by the global infrastructure boom. One Earth, 1(3), 305-315.
4 Maron, M., Hobbs, R. J., Moilanen, A., Matthews, J. W., Christie, K., Gardner, T. A., … & McAlpine, C. A. (2012). Faustian bargains? Restoration realities in the context of biodiversity offset policies. Biological conservation, 155, 141-148.
5 Moilanen, A., & Laitila, J. (2016). Indirect leakage leads to a failure of avoided loss biodiversity offsetting. Journal of Applied Ecology, 53(1), 106-111.
6 Wang, C., Zhang, W., Li, X., & Wu, J. (2022). A global meta‐analysis of the impacts of tree plantations on biodiversity. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 31(3), 576-587.
7 Marshall, E., Wintle, B.A., Southwell, D., & Kujala, H. (2020). What are we measuring? A review of metrics used to describe biodiversity in offsets exchanges. Biological Conservation, 241, 108250.