How Businesses Can Help Make Half-Earth a Reality (Part 4 of 5): Mitigating Pollution

Oil refinery industrial plant at night

In part four of this five-part blog series (which I originally wrote for the Half-Earth Project at this link), we’ll look at the #3 issue that impacts wildlife and biodiversity today: Pollution.

“Pollution” refers to the introduction of contaminants, such as chemicals, light, noise, or heat, into the natural environment where they may cause negative changes. For example, herbicides and pesticides cause harm to nontarget species, such as insect pollinators, and pose a risk to human health. The discharge of detergents, fertilizers, and sewage into aquatic systems can cause an excess of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which disrupt ecosystems by causing the overgrowth and decay of plants, algae, and phytoplankton. The result is a severe decline in water quality and the creation of an aquatic environment that promotes the survival of simple algae and plankton over more complicated plants.

Then we have the example of acid rain. The burning of fossil fuels generates air pollutants that can either remain in the air as particle pollutants or fall to the ground in the form of acid rain. The sulfuric- and nitric-acid components of acid rain can lead to the acidification of lakes, streams, and forest soils. Species of fish, amphibians, clams, snails, insects, and plants can have a difficult time surviving in acidic conditions. Fish eggs can’t hatch if the pH of water is too low, and fish species, such as salmon, may abandon their spawning areas. When fewer fish spawn and fewer eggs hatch, it creates fewer food options for predators. Acid rain also harms plants and trees by slowing their growth, damaging their leaves, and making the soil more toxic to plants. The key point is that pollution, in all its forms, can cause serious, widespread harm to wildlife and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Then we have the issue of climate change, caused by the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment. The biggest human-caused sources of these “greenhouse gases”—particularly carbon dioxide—are a result of burning fossil fuels and cutting down carbon-absorbing forests.

Increases in temperature can have a massive impact on wildlife. Some habitats may disappear due to rising sea levels, which are caused by the melting of mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets. Temperature changes have an impact on flowering and fruiting times for plants. They also have a significant impact on the habitat ranges that are occupied by animals. Biologists on the ground are witnessing significant shifts in habitat ranges and species composition in different parts of the world. Some species are showing up in areas where they haven’t been seen previously while other species are starting to disappear from areas where they were once abundant. I recently went to a presentation that showed slide after slide of striking shifts in locations where New Mexico birds have been spotted in the state over the past few decades. For species that can survive in a wide variety of habitat patches, climate change may not pose a major threat. However, species that are isolated in just a few habitat patches or are restricted to mountaintops may not be able to rapidly shift their distribution to survive.

What Can Corporations Do?

Fortunately, pollution is one biodiversity threat that corporations of all shapes and sizes are willing to address, at least to some degree. This is largely due to the thousands of pages of environmental regulations with which corporations must comply to ensure that processes and controls are in place for air emissions, wastewater and stormwater discharge, and hazardous-material transport and storage. However, regulatory pressure isn’t the only reason why corporations pay close attention to pollution. Many of the actions that corporations take to prevent pollution also produce significant cost savings. In addition, the approach that corporations need to take to address pollution include processes and ways of thinking that are familiar to them. When you talk about “minimizing waste” and “improving process efficiency,” you’re speaking the language of business. Waste minimization and process efficiency are topics that already get a lot of attention in corporations through a variety of initiatives, such as Lean, Six Sigma, and quality-management systems.

Companies typically adopt one or more of the following five strategies to address the threats of pollution and climate change: pollution prevention, carbon offsets, environmental design, green building, and green infrastructure. Let’s look at each of these strategies in more detail.

Strategy #1: Pollution Prevention. Most corporations have a pollution-prevention program or project in place, often using the well-known “reduce, reuse, and recycle” concept. Many of these pollution-prevention efforts are driven by regulations, following specific guidance from various regulatory agencies. Other pollution-prevention initiatives aim to go beyond compliance, driven by a company’s desire to identify cost-saving opportunities that also reduce pollution. Pollution-prevention activities that yield the greatest value for business and the environment will vary, depending on the company, industry, and location, but they typically include a combination of training programs, energy audits, “green IT” practices, transportation and fleet efficiency efforts, and initiatives to reduce food and beverage waste and unnecessary packaging. For example, Walmart created a tool for apparel buyers and sourcing teams to help them optimize the size of corrugated cardboard shipping cartons. As a result, Walmart was able to reduce the number of boxes shipped by 8.1 million in one year, saving 6.3 million pounds of corrugate, 7,800 metric tons of greenhouse gases, and US$ 15.3 million in operational costs.

Strategy #2: Carbon Offsets. Carbon offsets (also known as “greenhouse-gas offsets”) are a popular tool that corporations use to address climate change, where the company reduces emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in one area to compensate for emissions that are made elsewhere. This benefits companies by enabling them to meet regulatory requirements at a significantly lower cost compared with the effort and resources required to directly reduce emissions from operations. As for the benefits of carbon offsets to wildlife and biodiversity, the jury is still out.

Strategy #3: Environmental Design. A third powerful corporate strategy for addressing pollution and climate change is to design products, processes, or services in a way that reduces impacts to human health and the environment. This approach is often called Design for the Environment (DfE), and the concept has been around since the early 1990s. Companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Philips use DfE to identify chemical alternatives that are better for the environment without sacrificing product quality or performance. These companies also look for ways to make it safer and easier to reuse or dispose of products at the end of a product’s useful life. For example, HP’s DfE program identified an opportunity to use recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic for most of its ink cartridges. This enabled HP to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 43 million pounds from 2013 to 2015, which is equivalent to taking 4,125 cars off the road for one year.

Strategy #4: Green Building. Green building is a well-known, cost-effective, environmental-management strategy that businesses have adopted with enormous success. Its popularity continues to grow thanks to numerous examples of green buildings that have yielded significant reductions in environmental impacts while providing a substantial return on investment. For example, in 2006, Adobe estimated a net-present-value rate of return of nearly 20:1 for the initial investment in its headquarters towers. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that commercial building owners and managers will invest US$ 960 billion globally between 2015 and 2023 on greening their existing buildings. The primary areas of focus are expected to include the installation of more energy-efficient windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Strategy #5: Green Infrastructure. Green infrastructure is similar to green building, but it can take some different forms than a building or roof. The term “green infrastructure” is defined differently by various organizations, but it generally refers to natural systems that are managed to address urban challenges, such as stormwater management, climate adaptation, clean water, and healthy soils. For example, Union Carbide Corporation, a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, constructed a 110-acre wetland in Texas to serve the function of a wastewater-treatment facility. The wetland was 100% compliant from day zero with all discharge requirements. In addition, the constructed wetland has low energy, maintenance, and resource requirements with no need for pumps, additives, an oxygen system, or added water, and there are no biosolids to handle or dispose. Compared with a wastewater treatment plant, the wetland supports greater biodiversity of plants, animals, and micro-organisms. From a cost perspective, the US$ 1.4 million initial investment and operational capital pales in comparison to the US$ 40 million price tag for a gray infrastructure alternative. It’s a good example of a win-win, profitable-conservation project.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Mark Aspelin is the Founder of Corporations for Biodiversity and author of the highly rated book “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.”

How Businesses Can Help Make Half-Earth a Reality (Part 2 of 5): Alleviating Habitat Destruction

In part two of this five-part blog series (which I originally wrote for the Half-Earth Project at this link), we’ll look at the #1 issue that impacts wildlife and biodiversity today: habitat destruction.

The term “habitat destruction” can refer to the complete destruction of a habitat or, more commonly, habitat fragmentation, where a large, continuous area of a habitat is divided into two or more fragments. The primary culprit behind habitat destruction is a change in land use. The most common forms include clearing land for agricultural use, extractive industries like logging or mining, and expanding urban or residential development.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that forests cover about 31% of the land area on Earth and, for a variety of reasons, we’re losing about 46,000 to 58,000 square miles of forest each year—roughly equivalent to losing 48 football fields every minute. In the Amazon alone, we’ve lost about 17% of the forest over the past 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.

This loss of habitat has a massive impact on biodiversity and wildlife. However, it can also hit closer to home for many of us as we shelter at home for COVID-19. A recent article “How biodiversity loss is hurting our ability to combat pandemics” published on March 9, 2020 from the World Economic Forum states that 31% of disease outbreaks, such as Ebola and Zika, are linked to deforestation. This is because deforestation forces animals to move out of their natural habitats to new areas that are in closer proximity to human populations. When wildlife moves closer to human populations, there is an increased risk of disease transmission between wildlife and humans.

What can businesses do to alleviate the issue of habitat destruction?

There are five common strategies that corporations use to combat habitat destruction, four of which we will cover here: avoidance; minimization; rehabilitation and restoration; and biodiversity offsets and voluntary compensatory actions. The fifth major strategy—supply chain management—we’ll cover later in this 5-part series.

The first—and best—strategy that companies can adopt to address habitat destruction and biodiversity loss is a simple one: avoid any development or operations in areas identified as important habitat for species that are classified as endangered, threatened or vulnerable to extinction; or areas that have been identified as critical for the conservation of biodiversity because of existing species richness.

On land that is not categorized as an avoidance zone, corporations shift their attention towards minimization strategies that reduce the duration, intensity and extent of their impacts for biodiversity and wildlife. Minimization strategies can take a wide variety of forms, including site selection strategies, operational policies and procedures, wildlife corridors and green roofs. For example (which I also shared in my Edge Effects blog post), to transport material and facilities needed for a project located near the fragile Tibetan plateau of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, workers from the State Grid Corporation of China used an “Electricity Caravan” of horses rather than build roads or bridges in this ecologically sensitive area. In another example, companies such as Facebook, Macy’s, and Ford have installed green roofs, which not only save money, but also provide habitat for a variety of insects and birds.

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Green Roof on the ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall in Fukuoka City, Japan

In situa­tions where avoidance and minimization are not practical or feasible, companies may turn to a third strategy: rehabilitation and restoration. With this strategy, a company attempts to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems or restore cleared ecosys­tems in areas that have previously been cleared, developed or neglected. In another example from China, The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) pursued an ecological restoration effort as part of its Western Pipeline project. As soon as the new pipes were laid down and buried, CNPC planted vegetation to restore the original landscape and followed up with annual monitoring and remediation measures.

If avoidance, minimization and restoration strategies aren’t viable options, then companies may pursue a fourth strategy: biodiversity offsets and voluntary compensatory actions. A well-known example of a voluntary compensatory action is Walmart’s Acres for America Program (a topic I covered in an earlier blog post), which has a goal to conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land developed by Walmart stores.

So where does the Half-Earth Project fit in? The Half-Earth Project is creating a global map of fine resolution species distribution that will provide companies with a unique tool for decision-making in support of biodiversity. The Half-Earth Map can be used to see where various species groups have rich or rare populations, so that companies can avoid development in these special places. The Half-Earth Map can also be used to identify the places that offer the best opportunity to offset biodiversity impacts through conservation management of land that is particularly rich in biodiversity. This tool can guide and ensure that conservation investments are happening in the optimal places for biodiversity while also showcasing the biodiversity value that these kinds of investments can bring to these places.

That wraps up our whirlwind tour of how corporations can address the biodiversity threat of habitat destruction, and how the Half-Earth Project can help corporations make sound decisions that are good for business and good for biodiversity.

In next week’s post, we’ll turn our attention to the #2 threat to biodiversity: invasive species. See you then!

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Mark Aspelin is the Founder of Corporations for Biodiversity and author of the highly rated book “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.”

How Businesses Can Help Make Half-Earth a Reality: Introduction

When it comes to protecting half of the Earth to conserve biodiversity, we all have a role to play, and corporations are no exception.  In fact, businesses of all shapes and sizes will play a critical role in making Half-Earth a reality.

In this five-part blog series (which I originally wrote for the Half-Earth Project at this link), we’ll explore how corporations can address four of the five major threats to biodiversity, often referred to as HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, and overharvesting. Climate change is part of “H” as it plays a major role in altering and destroying habitats. I’ll be providing you with some real-world examples of how companies are tackling these issues today.  We’ll also look at how businesses can work with the Half-Earth Project to manage these threats to biodiversity.

While the goal of Half-Earth is to protect half the land and sea in order to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, this does not mean that large tracts of land will be fenced off and protected from human trespass.  As anyone with on-the-ground conservation experience can attest to, conservation measures can’t be separated from human activities and interests. To be successful, strategies to protect biodiversity must be integrated with strategies that consider economic and social concerns.

The Half-Earth Project is busy working on a variety of initiatives to drive research, provide leadership, and engage people to participate broadly in the goal to conserve half of our planet.  One important initiative that launched in March 2018 and was featured in a NY Times Op-Ed by E.O Wilson, “Mapping Earth’s Species to Identify Conservation Priorities” (https://www.half-earthproject.org/blog-posts/2018/3/5/mapping-earths-species-to-identify-conservation-priorities), is the creation of a cutting-edge biodiversity map that will support data-driven conservation.  As the map takes shape in the coming years, we’ll no doubt discover that a significant chunk of the land that we would like to protect is either privately held or greatly influenced by the operations and purchasing decisions of corporations.  The achievement of Half-Earth will, therefore, include broad stakeholder participation.

My hope is that this blog series will provide you with a glimpse of how we can bridge the gap between the efforts of corporations and biologists to protect our planet’s wildlife, biodiversity, and natural resources.  Fortunately, conservation versus profit is not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. There are many win-win scenarios, which are good for business (e.g., reduced costs, reduced risk, and increased profits) and good for biodiversity (e.g., healthy species, populations, and ecosystems).

Next week, I’ll be focusing on the biggest threat to biodiversity, habitat destruction, and I’ll share some strategies and examples of how companies can address this issue.

In the meantime, to learn more about The Half-Earth Project, visit https://www.half-earthproject.org.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Mark Aspelin is the Founder of Corporations for Biodiversity and author of the highly rated book “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.”