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 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 3 of 5): Combating Invasive Species

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The invasive species kudzu (Pueraria spp.), in action

In part three of this five-part blog series (which I originally wrote for the Half-Earth Project at this link), we’ll look at the #2 issue that impacts wildlife and biodiversity today: invasive species.

You may be surprised to learn that invasive species rank second only to habitat destruction when it comes to the biggest threats to biodiversity. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 1,000 invasive species. Some of these species, such as kudzu (pictured above), were brought in the U.S. deliberately, while other species, like the zebra mussel, arrived by accident.

Regardless of how they arrive, invasive species pose a major risk to wildlife worldwide. A recent study published in Nature Communications (Xuan Liu, Tim M. Blackburn, Tianjian Song, Xuyu Wang, Cong Huang, Yiming Li. “Animal invaders threaten protected areas worldwide”. Nature Communications, 2020; 11 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16719-2) found at least one invasive species within 100 km of the boundaries of 99% of the 199,957 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) protected areas that were studied around the world. In addition at least one invasive species was found within 10 km of the boundaries for 89% of the IUCN protected areas that were studied. On a positive note, the researchers found that less than 10% of the protected areas are currently home to any of the invasive species surveyed, suggesting that protected areas are generally effective in protecting against invasive species. However, 95% of the protected areas were deemed to be environmentally suitable for the establishment of at least one of the 894 terrestrial invasive species (mammals, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates) that were included in the study.

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American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) is native to southern and eastern parts of the United States and Canada, but is an invasive species in other parts of North, Central and South America, Western Europe, and parts of Asia.

These invasive species can do a lot of ecological and economic damage. The overall economic cost of invasive species in the U.S. is estimated to be around US$ 120 billion per year.

One of the more infamous examples is the zebra mussel, which frequently appears on lists of the worst invasive species. Back in 1988, the zebra mussel hitched a ride in the ballast water of a transatlantic freighter, arriving in Lake St. Clair—a freshwater lake located between Ontario and Michigan. The mussel quickly spread to other watersheds, such as the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, by riding the currents and hitching a ride on anchors, the bottom of boats, and other human-mediated modes of transport. Zebra mussels like to attach to stable objects. Stable objects can take the form of clams and other mussel species, which they can kill by reducing their ability to move, feed, and breed. This is how the zebra mussel wiped out certain species of clams in Lake St. Clair as well as other freshwater mussel species in Ireland. It’s estimated that at least 30 species of freshwater mussel are threatened with extinction because of the zebra mussel.

Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha)

Other stable objects to which zebra mussels like to attach include water-treatment-facility pipes and electricity-generation infrastructure. The mussels grow in thick densities, which can block pipes and clog water intakes. As a result, corporations in these industries spend a great deal of time and money monitoring and removing mussels from their infrastructure, and companies in the shipping industry must manage their ballast water to ensure that invasive species aren’t along for the ride.

How can corporations address the threat of invasive species to biodiversity and native wildlife?

When it comes to invasive species, there are three basic strategies that corporations can adopt to manage the issue: prevention processes, early detection and rapid response, and restoration of native habitat.

The best—and most cost-effective—way to manage invasive species is to prevent them from entering in the first place. Of course, that’s easier said than done. To accomplish this, a company will need to implement a systematic process that monitors for high-risk invaders at critical control points such as wooden packing material, horticultural plants, and ship ballast water, as we saw in the zebra mussel example above.

Tanker discharging ballast into harbor

While prevention is our first line of defense, no matter how many regulations or how much money we throw at preventing invasive species, some will continue to arrive. When they do arrive, we’ll want to have a second strategy in place to address this threat: early detection and rapid response (EDRR). The earlier we detect an invasive species, the better chance we have at eradicating before it before it multiplies and spreads, which translates into substantial costs and resources. Companies can participate in an EDRR system using their own staff, or by partnering with local universities, Native Plant Society organizations, and other trained experts to help with a baseline inventory and ongoing monitoring.

For the “rapid response” piece of EDRR, our goal is to eradicate—or at least slow down—the invasive species after we spot it. In some cases, scientists will recommend that a newly introduced species be tolerated and monitored, as the cost of eradication may be too great, and some invasions will recede on their own. In other cases, it’s time to act by using a variety of mechanical, chemical, or biological control techniques. Each of these control techniques has a variety of pros and cons that go beyond the scope of this post.

The third strategy that corporations can take to combat the issue of invasive species is to restore habitat by removing invasive species and replacing them with native species. This may take the form of landscaping with native plants, planting meadows and gardens that are attractive to pollinators, and building wetlands or artificial ponds that provide water sources for local wildlife. For example, in Pacheco, Argentina, Volkswagen created an artificial lake near its facility to collect rainwater and provide a habitat for indigenous flora and fauna. This effort provides a natural landscape for the industrial center, and 62 species of birds have been counted at the lake.

For many companies, the value proposition for these three strategies to combat invasive species will come in the form of ecosystem services and more intangible benefits in the forms of employee satisfaction and fostering goodwill with customers, regulators, and the local community. For other companies, the proactive implementation of programs to prevent, detect, and respond to invasive species can yield more tangible cost savings. Let’s take another look at the zebra mussel’s impact on water-treatment and electricity-generating facilities.

In the United Kingdom, Thames Water spends £1 million a year on clearing zebra mussels from its raw water pipes and water-treatment facilities and applying heavy doses of chlorine to deter the mussels, while Anglian Water spends £500,000 a year tackling the problem. In the United States, zebra mussels are estimated to have cost municipalities and power companies over US$ 1.5 billion over the past 25 years. Another study came up with a cost estimate of US$ 267 million for all water-treatment and electricity-generating facilities from 1989 through 2004. These are big numbers. Any prevention, early detection, and rapid-response actions that corporations in those industries successfully implement can yield a significant return on investment.

Coming attractions: In next week’s post, we’ll turn our attention to the biodiversity threats of pollution and climate change.

Thanks for reading!



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.”

Corporations for Biodiversity: How we define “Biodiversity”

Before we dive into the topic of business and biodiversity on this website, it’s probably worth a short post on how we define the term “biodiversity” in the first place.

Biodiversity simply refers to the variety of life in the world or in a specific habitat or ecosystem. The most common unit of measurement for biodiversity is the species, and there are a lot of them.  So far we’ve identified over 2 million species on Earth, a number that is conservatively estimated to represent about 20% of all species on our planet.  In other words, the Earth really is a little known planet.  At the rate we’re going, it’s estimated that we won’t complete the global census of biodiversity until we’re well into the twenty-third century.  Of course if we ramp up our efforts, then we may be able to complete the census by the end of this century.

But identifying species is just the beginning.  Each species plays a particular role in its habitat, and there are many species interdependencies in any given habitat.  Given that we don’t even know 80% of the species on the planet, it’s safe to say that we’re in our infancy when it comes to understanding and mapping the complex species interactions that make up healthy, functioning ecosystems.  This is one reason why many conservationists prefer the approach of protecting large chunks of land as preserves, rather than tinker with ecosystem dynamics that we don’t fully understand.

While there may be plenty of disagreement on the best way to manage land, when it comes to identifying the biggest threats to biodiversity on this planet, biologists are generally in agreement.  Biologists use the acronym HIPPO to list, in order, the biggest threats to biodiversity:

  • Habitat destruction (this includes climate change)
  • Invasive species
  • Pollution
  • Population growth
  • Over-harvesting / Over-hunting

The impact that most corporations have on biodiversity is concentrated in the areas of habitat destruction and pollution, although some companies also play a significant role in over-harvesting and invasive species.  As for population growth, I don’t think many companies will be touching that hot potato anytime soon so it’s not something that we’ll be covering in this blog.

Putting on our conservation biology hat, the best things that we can do to protect biodiversity on this planet include the following ambitious goals

  • Goal #1: Set aside about half of the earth’s surface (this includes oceans) as a natural reserve, undisturbed by man, following the guidance of renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson.  This “Half-Earth” approach involves protecting large tracts of land in places like the Amazon region, the Congo Basin, and New Guinea, as well as stringing together patches of land in the industrialized world with wildlife corridors and restored habitat, and protecting large amounts of marine waters.  As of 2015, every sovereign nation in the world has some kind of protected-area system in place.  There are a roughly 161,000 reserves on land and 6,500 reserves over marine waters, representing approximately 15% of the Earth’s land area and 7.3% of the Earth’s ocean area.  We have a long way to go, but the protected-area coverage trend is moving in the right direction – it is increasing gradually.
  • Goal #2: Be good stewards of the land outside of natural reserves.  For corporations, this includes goals such as zero carbon emissions, zero waste, 100% renewable energy use, planting/protecting native vegetation, and eliminating invasive species.

I told you these goals were ambitious!  But they aren’t as far out of reach as you might think.  Plus these goals give us a clear vision of our desired destination from a biodiversity perspective.  Of course we also have competing social and economic perspectives to consider, but why not strive for the ideal … you like a challenge right?  Let’s get busy figuring out how to get there.  Some companies are already well on their way, as you’ll see in future posts.

Thanks for reading!



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.”