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 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

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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.”

Habitat Fragmentation Edge Effects: When Having an Edge is Not a Good Thing (Part 1 of 2)

We usually think it’s great when we have an edge, but that’s certainly not the case when we’re talking about habitat fragmentation edge effects and their impact on biodiversity and wildlife.  In this post we’ll explore the topic of edge effects and how it relates to business and biology. Note that I originally published a shorter version of this article on Greenbiz.

Habitat destruction is the #1 issue that impacts wildlife and biodiversity today.  This fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  When we think of all the roads, power lines, buildings, clearcutting, and other development activities taking place all over the world, we can quickly get a sense of the widespread reality of this issue.

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.  Habitat destruction is clearly a big issue, and it won’t be going away anytime soon.

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 loss, degradation, and fragmentation is a change in land use, usually in the form of agriculture, logging, mining, and urban or residential development.  

There are three important conditions that characterize habitat fragmentation: smaller habitat, increased edge effects, and increased isolation.  Today, we’ll focus on the second characteristic – edge effects, which refers to the effect of an abrupt transition between two different, adjoining ecological communities.

We can see examples of edge effects occurring naturally all over the place.  These natural edges, such as the forest and meadow pictured below, can lead to greater biodiversity in the area.

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However, the edge effects that I’m focusing on in this post are man-made edges that are created in the middle of an existing natural habitat.  From a business perspective, habitats are commonly fragmented by the construction of roads, power lines, and buildings, or the clearing of land for agriculture and forestry.

In the context of habitat fragmentation, edge effects increase the proportion of habitat edges in relation to the total area.  In other words, any given point within the fragment of land is, on average, closer to an edge.  Why does that matter?  Edges matter because they create changes in the species composition for a given chunk of land.  These species-composition changes found at edges are caused by the following conditions:

  • Edges of a forest have microclimatic changes that impact the types of vegetation that can grow there.  These microclimatic changes include more direct sunlight, higher soil temperatures, differences in humidity and depth of humus, and increased wind exposure and snow loads compared with the interior of a forest.  The seeds of some plant species are sensitive to drying out with increased sun and wind, leading to significant differences in the types of vegetation found at a forest edge compared with the forest interior.  To make matters worse, these species alterations extend into the forest interior.  In some tropical rain forests, vegetation changes have been detected as far as nearly 1,500 feet from the edge.  In the scenario where we have a small fragment of a natural habitat or a narrow corridor of land, the microclimatic changes associated with the edges can permeate throughout the entire piece of a habitat.  The result may be a decrease in the presence of rare and sensitive species, while weedy species and generalist predators may thrive.
  • Edges are suitable for some species but unsuitable for others.  If we build a road through a forest, some plant species will thrive with the extra sunlight, and some bird species will enjoy perches next to these open areas where they can pounce on exposed prey.  “Edge species” such as deer and elk like forest edges because they can find food in open areas and take cover in the forest.  Other species of animals will actively shy away from areas of increased sunlight and exposure, moving further into the interior habitat where the characteristics of land remain unchanged.  For example, spotted owls (pictured below) prefer old-growth, mature forests with a lot of canopy and few edges.  When we push these species into the now-smaller interior habitat, we are likely to see increased competition for limited resources.
  • Edge-tolerant species are often generalist predators and exotic species that outcompete native species and habitat specialists.  Examples of edge-loving species include brown-headed cowbirds, crows, raccoons, and opossums.  These species thrive in an edge habitat and act as nest predators and cavity competitors of interior species, which can decrease the populations of forest songbirds, ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the remaining habitat fragments.
  • Edges become areas with increased noise, light, pollution, human recreation, and roadkill.  The increased noise, light, and human activity may cause some species to move further inland, away from habitat edges. Traffic on adjacent roads can cause pollution in the form of nitrogen deposition, and the increase in noise and light can deter or disorient animals.  Roadkill continues to be a significant source of wildlife mortality with several million collisions per year reported worldwide.  In one study in Saguaro National Park on the United States–Mexico border, an estimated 30,000 animals were killed by vehicles annually.  This included a variety of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, such as the mountain lion pictured below at Saguaro National Park.

Well that was a depressing note to close on for this week, but hopefully this gives you a better understanding of edge effects and how they can impact biodiversity and wildlife. Next week we’ll switch gears and look at some strategies that businesses can implement to help manage edge effects.

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.”

Cisco Systems and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 2 of 2): Preventing Overharvesting through Technology

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“We see massive opportunities for our innovation, expertise, and culture to play a role in finding solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.”
—Chuck Robbins, Chairman and CEO of Cisco

Last week, we looked at two small-scale, local strategies that Cisco Systems uses to promote biodiversity conservation. Today, we’ll add a third strategy that Cisco is deploying at an international level to tackle the final letter of the HIPPO acronym of biodiversity threats – Overharvesting. In case you need refresher on that acronym, the acronym HIPPO represents the greatest threats, in order, to biodiversity: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation, and overharvesting.

“Overharvesting” is a broad term that refers to the harvesting of a renewable resource at a rate that is unsustainable. The term can apply to plants, fish stocks, forests, grazing pastures, and game animals. The motivation behind hunting, fishing, and plant collection may be for food, economic reasons, cultural reasons, or sport. Regardless of the reason, overharvesting implies that changes need to be made to current harvesting practices or else animal and plant populations may not recover. The result can be species extinction at the population or species level, and major ecosystem disturbances due to imbalances in predator–prey relationships.

Corporations have an important role to play in preventing the overharvesting of plants and animals. This applies to all companies—not just the ones in the fishery, pharmaceutical, and herbal-medicine industries that directly source plants and animals. One of the most effective ways that many companies, large and small, attempt to prevent overharvesting is to “green” their supply chain. Greening the supply chain is also an effective strategy for combating other biodiversity threats, such as habitat destruction and pollution.

However, greening the supply chain isn’t the only strategy that corporations pursue when it comes to preventing overharvesting. Some companies are leveraging their technology to help prevent illegal hunting of endangered wildlife.

In the case of Cisco, they are specifically addressing the issue of rhino poaching in South Africa. This might sound strange. After all, what the heck does a technology company in Silicon Valley have to do with hunting rhinos in Africa? In the case of Cisco, the company’s strategy is to showcase its technology by using it to combat a challenging, high-profile wildlife conservation issue.

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Cisco has partnered with Dimension Data, an IT consulting and technical support services company headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a “Connected Conservation” initiative that tracks rhino poachers at a game reserve in South Africa. Cisco and Dimension Data are using seismic sensors, drone cameras, thermal imaging, biometric scanning, and networking technology to track the movements of all humans who enter the reserve grounds. Park rangers use these new tools in combination with traditional sniffer dogs and trained soldiers on the ground to catch and deter poachers while minimizing disturbances to the endangered rhinos.

The results have been impressive so far. The Connected Conservation initiative has been successful in reducing rhino poaching at the South African reserve by 96%. To learn more about this effort, you can view a video about the Connected Conservation initiative on the Cisco website. Cisco and Dimension Data’s efforts are also included in a documentary called “Save This Rhino” that features proactive efforts in South Africa to save critically endangered rhinos.

This partnership between Cisco and Dimension data is not a one-off project. In fact, the two companies are soon celebrating the 25th anniversary of their strategic business partnership. Together they work to innovate and deliver services and solutions around the world, with projects in nearly 150 countries.

More and more companies are leveraging their products and technologies to develop solutions that directly help in the fight against overharvesting. As for the Connected Conservation initiative, this approach may soon be leveraged to protect other endangered species throughout the world. The main obstacle that prevents the spread of this technological approach is the US$ 1.5 million-per-year cost of the system. However, despite its hefty price tag, it’s an effective proof of concept that will hopefully prove to be effective in protecting other critically endangered species.

Thanks for reading and wishing you a Happy Earth Day this week!

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.”