Blog | 13 Mar, 2018

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

Blog by Prue Addison, Giulia Carbone and Nadine McCormick

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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.