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Plunging biodiversity threatens our world, our communities, our jobs, and our families. That is not hyperbole.
Since 1970 there has been an astonishing 68% biodiversity loss across the world. It’s an existential threat that affects economic growth, human health, and prosperity. It joins disease prevention, food security, and climate change on a dystopian list of threats established by the World Economic Forum. Over 50% of the world’s GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature, including pharmaceuticals, food production, and tourism.
The solution is at once quite simple and enormously complex: We must prevent further ecological degradation and we must restore biodiversity wherever possible. The term that captures this initiative is “biodiversity net gain” (BNG).
Fortunately, the world’s governments along with local authorities are beginning to respond. Biodiversity net gain will soon be a legal requirement for many organizations around the world.
Notable EU biodiversity regulation includes the European Commission’s proposed new Nature Restoration Law with an overarching target to restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea area by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.
In the UK, the Environment Act 2021 establishes biodiversity as 1 of 4 targets for recovery of the natural world. It requires 10% biodiversity net gain in new developments and will be in enforced across the UK by the end of 2023. It includes restoring agricultural ecosystems and increasing grassland butterfly and farmland bird populations.
In the U.S., a number of bills are in development, or already in effect, including Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2022, for conservation or restoration of wildlife and plant species. It joins Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment Act (SAFE Act, 2021), which responds to the effects of extreme weather and climate change on fish, wildlife, and plants.
Whether councils, counties, and communities are motivated by environmental, societal, financial, or legal reasons, 2023 will be a crucial year for biodiversity action.
“Biodiversity net gain is an approach to development, land, and marine management that leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state than before the development took place,” states Natural England, a governmental advisor for England’s natural environment.
While these laws take hold, there remains a huge gap between their intent and the reality within the world’s habitats. To be sure, many locations already enjoy protection, though it is limited protection that does not restore and widen habitats. Development continues to destroy local environments and hamper nature’s ability to thrive.
Biodiversity net gain planning aims to create new habitats, enhance current habitats, and expand the ecological connectivity that wildlife needs to flourish. BNG planning encourages and requires developers to work with local authorities, wildlife groups, landowners, and other vested interests to defend and promote biodiversity.
Measuring the state of a particular area is a difficult task, given the complexities of wildlife, habitats, and human development. Because of the inherent ambiguity, measurement requires standard metrics to guide biodiversity net gain planning with before/after comparisons and to report biodiversity net gain metrics to local authorities. The UK has developed such a standard – a biodiversity metric – to calculate the biodiversity net gain of a project or development.
It is a habitat-based system that uses an area’s features to establish biodiversity measurement. The biodiversity net gain metric is available online as a public resource to standardize the evaluations, projections, and results of ecologists, developers, planning authorities, communities, and land managers.
Traditional methods for applying the biodiversity measurement are frequently manual and highly complex, involving sending ecologists to collect data from key areas and extrapolate findings for an entire site. These measurements are also intrinsically incomplete, prone to unconscious bias, and can be expensive and time consuming for large areas or distributed tracts of land.
As a result, new solutions are emerging that use technology for biodiversity net gain planning by cataloging and evaluating biodiversity more accurately and efficiently than before. These innovations allow organizations to accurately measure and quickly operationalize their biodiversity management in as little as 1 week instead of up to 6 months required by traditional methods.
Natural England offers many guidelines for local authorities and developers to successful manage net biodiversity gain, including these:
Use the biodiversity metric early in BNG planning to quantify and compare the biodiversity impact of different design options. This allows more design flexibility in reaching biodiversity net gain goals.
Calculate the biodiversity net gain metric before site development and compare it to the projected value after development. If BNG cannot be achieved on-site, then – as a last resort – consider offsite options.
Build a biodiversity net gain plan that includes the overall BNG strategy as well as information that is not captured in the BNG metric, such as species-specific factors, habitat management, and how the net gains will be validated.
Protect the biodiversity net gains legally. For example, in the UK, land that is designated for biodiversity net gain must be secured for at least 30 years.
Register formally with the appropriate authority any offsite land used for biodiversity net gain.
Manage, monitor, and report any land designated for delivering biodiversity net gain for as long as the net gain agreement is in effect.
More than just a “feel good” program to save a few wild animals and trees, biodiversity net gain initiatives address the large but dwindling number of the world’s species. For example, the UK’s Woodland Trust calculates that rich grasslands often have more than 30 different species of wildflower in just a 50 centimeter (20 inch) square.
Protecting and rebuilding this biodiversity has 4 primary benefits to the world and to human society in nature, people, economies, and climate.
Nature is improved by building or maintaining bigger and better natural habitats that are joined together to help wildlife flourish. Biodiversity net gain programs enhance existing habitats and create new ones. Connecting habitats helps wildlife thrive and adapt to the changing climate.
Biodiversity net gain improves human health and wellbeing, too, by helping people be part of the natural world around them. It creates new green spaces, improves existing spaces, and brings nature closer to people. In this way, biodiversity net gain makes our communities more attractive and livable. About 90% of respondents to a UK government survey considered natural spaces to be good for mental health and wellbeing. It also creates financial incentives for investment in green infrastructure and natural solutions, improving the resilience of communities while it helps companies and local governments meet their commitments to a net-zero carbon footprint.
Local economies grow through biodiversity net gain, which increases natural capital assets, creates green jobs, and supports sustainable development. Greener communities are more attractive to residents, businesses, and employees. Landowners realize the benefits of long-term income opportunities fostered by investment in managing habitats. At the same time, those habitat investments support the broader, local economies by increasing financial and natural capital asset values. For example, the UK determined in 2017 that cooling from green spaces (parks, woodlands, and more) and blue spaces (rivers, wetlands, and more) was worth £243.6 million in labor productivity savings and avoided air conditioning costs.
The nature-based solutions of biodiversity net gain support climate change mitigation and adaptation by helping the world’s greenhouse gas emitters reach their net-zero targets. Ecosystem protection and restoration is a fundamental principle of biodiversity net gain and helps forests sequester the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide. The Woodland Trust estimates that a young grove of trees with mixed native species can lock up more than 400 tons of carbon per hectare (2.5 acres) in trees, roots and soil. Reestablished habitats also help communities increase their resilience to climate-triggered extreme weather events by creating shading and cooling effects, as well as reducing risk of floods and landslides.
To manage their end-to-end biodiversity programs and meet their government deadlines, many companies and local authorities have already started using sustainability management technology for their biodiversity net gain planning, including Anglian Water, 2 major water utilities in the UK, National Grid, and a wide variety of large landowners.
With standard biodiversity measurement and BNG planning, landowners are already exploring different ways to reach net biodiversity gain. For their own land developments, they are establishing baseline assessments with the biodiversity net gain metric. Some landowners have created habitat banks in order to sell biodiversity units to developers who need them for their own biodiversity measurement. There is currently an emerging business in brokering these biodiversity net gain metrics.
Beyond landowners, many other groups are benefiting from biodiversity net gain planning. Developers use the biodiversity net gain metric as a criterion for site selection and project design. They are expanding their collaborations and partnerships across industries to find onsite and offsite opportunities to achieve their required biodiversity net gain.
Local planning authorities also find benefit in biodiversity net gain planning. In the UK, they are now building policies and processes to be ready for the mandatory requirements and to be sure that their local communities and wildlife habitats receive the benefits of biodiversity net gain in their areas. Through their biodiversity net gain planning, they are exploring options and procedures to support flexible application of biodiversity net gain planning across public and private lands, ensuring that they are prioritizing the areas and habitats with the greatest need.
Get more information about how satellites and AI can help make biodiversity net gain metrics and planning more accurate and efficient. Talk to an expert to learn more.