Apr 212023

What is Nature Positive and is it Greenwashing?

What is Nature Positive and is it Greenwashing?

You may or may not have heard of the term “Nature Positive”. It’s a relatively new term, which has gained traction since the COP15 biodiversity conference late last year. When I first came across the term my thoughts were “that’s interesting, but what exactly does nature positive mean”? It turns out it’s actually a tricky concept to define and my curiosity (and greenwashing suspicions) were warranted. Because nature positive is a new term, and concrete definitions and criteria are only just being firmed up by researchers, it leaves room for misinterpretation and exploitation. Corporations and governments could take a meaningless, or at least vague, “eco” sounding term and use it for greenwashing purposes. In this post, I consider what is nature positive and is it greenwashing?

What is nature positive?

Essentially, nature positive means halting and reversing biodiversity loss through mitigation and conservation. This involves increasing conservation efforts and implementing more sustainable production and consumption. If viewed as a line graph, the trend would need to be a positive trajectory for recovering biodiversity (Milner-Gulland, 2022). This trajectory needs to be measured with a biodiversity baseline, a clear time frame, and a measurable target.

The term nature positive has its origins within American public pollution and wetland trading policies in the 1970s, including “no net loss” (NNL) or “net positive impact” (NPI). Nature positive is now being used in much the same way that “net zero” is a buzz word for climate change, in that it’s a clear overall goal. As a Greenpeace article points out, “nature” and “natural” are terms that are not clearly defined, whereas “biodiversity” is; “positive” is also ambiguous.

Biodiversity tends to be measured with global estimates of species populations and their risks of extinction, and even this scientific methodology has its limitations. In terms of actions, they need to be planed and budgeted, they need to be analysed for net gain, and monitored long term for progress. Okay, so this is easy enough to understand from a scientific perspective, but what do nature positive projects look like in practice, and who is accountable?

Graph property of NaturePositive.Org
Who should be held accountable?

It’s no surprise that a few large corporations control most of the world’s production and supply chains. It is these businesses and industries that need to be held accountable. The big questions is whether corporations are trustworthy and responsible stewards of biodiversity? They can have a positive impact, but they need to be regulated carefully and by an appropriate third party. In addition, when individuals or smaller businesses are investigating their impact on biodiversity, they need to factor in supply chains in their biodiversity accounting.

Past agreements on biodiversity conservation and restoration have fallen short of their targets. Conservation and business bodies are now starting to use the goal of “nature-positive”, aiming to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2050. Governments are also adopting the terminology in their policies. The UK Government now has a biodiversity net gain mandate following COP15. See more on the UK’s Biodiversity Indicators here.

A study by zu Ermgassen et al. (2022) looked at the use of nature positive strategies in business. They reviewed corporate definitions of nature positive, in contrast to earlier organisational biodiversity strategies and proposed the following four key elements for a sound nature positive strategy:

  1. demonstrating positive biodiversity outcomes across the entire value chain (“scope”)
  2. buy-in throughout the entire organization (“mainstreaming”)
  3. integrated consideration of different components of nature (“integration”)
  4. measurable outcomes against a fixed baseline aligned with overall societal goals (“ambition”)

They argue that significant improvements are needed in data availability and transparency, regulation and sector-wide coordination.

Oxford University made a bold commitment in 2021 to achieve Net Zero for climate change and Net Gain for Biodiversity across all its operations by 2035. This is an example of large, influential institutions setting precedent for change. See also, this study done on catering and nature positive at Oxford for an example of considering supply chains in biodiversity accounting.

How is nature positive being used?

Nature positive approaches to restoring biodiversity should also be combined with climate change mitigation strategies as they are all connected. This could be, for example, nature based solutions for carbon capture and storage. Any strategy should focus primarily on avoidance and reduction, and least on offsetting.

[MOST USED] Avoidance → Mitigation → Remediation → Offsetting [LEAST USED]

As Milner-Gulland (2022) explains, the term “nature positive” has appeal because it’s optimistic and aspirational. It looks good for businesses and governments “doing their part”. However, general terms like this are at risk of losing meaning. Any action that increases biodiversity anywhere by any amount could be called nature positive.

“‘better than nothing’ partial compensation for our impacts is not good enough. It allows us to continue to erode biodiversity while continuing largely with business as usual.” – Milner-Gulland 2022

Is nature positive greenwashing?

My view is that if we as a society are going to use terminology like “nature positive” for setting biodiversity goals, then they need to be clearly defined and regulated by a non-partisan third party. Otherwise, nature positive could very quickly become a greenwashing term used by governments and companies in box-ticking exercise to meet targets. It should not be used in policy work until it is a clearly defined and regulated term.

For more information on nature positive, visit NaturePositive.Org

For more on greenwashing, see my page: All about Greenwashing

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