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Financial institutions, businesses see a role in preserving biodiversity at COP15

MONTREAL — A number of business groups and financial institutions say they want to play a role in promoting biodiversity and hope a new UN biodiversity treaty will require some companies to disclose their impacts.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres towards their bilateral meeting location in Montreal on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL — A number of business groups and financial institutions say they want to play a role in promoting biodiversity and hope a new UN biodiversity treaty will require some companies to disclose their impacts.  

A proposal that at least some businesses be required to monitor their impact on biodiversity is one of the items being discussed at the biodiversity conference, known as COP15, currently taking place in Montreal.

But it's one of many elements of a possible deal where multiple proposals are on the table -- with the different options marked by square brackets.

Basile van Havre, co-chair of one of the conference's working groups, said the private sector is looking for rules and certainty on the environmental effectiveness of its investments.

"They want measures of risk so that they can target their investment the right way," van Havre said in a recent interview. "Guess what? That helps us.”

He said it's part of a larger push for performance standards that companies and investors can use to measure their activities against. 

The conference, which is bringing more than 190 nations together, is entering its second day of hard talks on hard targets for saving the world's biodiversity.

Van Havre said business groups have learned from climate change discussions that they need a way to assess risks.

He pointed to a possible example of a company funding beef production that creates deforestation, which might not be a sustainable long-term investment.

A Finance for Biodiversity Pledge has been signed by 110 financial services companies from 20 countries, calling on governments to reach an "ambitious" deal to protect biodiversity at the conference. 

They want to see public and private financial flows -- things like foreign direct investment and foreign aid -- aligned with the goals and targets of the agreement and want large businesses to be required to disclose their impacts and dependencies on nature. 

Suresh Weerasinghe, the head of levelling up and investments at British insurance company Aviva, which has signed the pledge and is a representative of the Finance for Biodiversity Foundation at the conference, said companies like his “take the view that, basically, our businesses will be imperilled if the biodiversity crisis isn't addressed.”

Regulatory regimes that require disclosures level the playing field, he said, and ensure that companies like his can see what the businesses they invest in are actually doing.

Florian Titze, an international biodiversity policy adviser at the World Wildlife Fund, said businesses are asking governments to regulate them so they can plan ahead.

Regulation will also create more fairness in the market and ensure that those who are ambitious are not disadvantaged, he said in a recent interview. 

Economic players understand that supporting biodiversity is in their interest, he added. 

"They know that in a world without biodiversity, there's no way of making a profit anymore," Titze said. 

Another pledge, signed by more than 300 companies, including H&M, L'Oréal, McCain Foods and SNC-Lavalin, also calls for the agreement that would be signed in Montreal to require companies to assess and disclose their effect on nature. 

Irina Likhachova, the global lead for biodiversity finance at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, which invests in private-sector projects in developing countries, said her organization is looking to increase its investments in projects that will benefit biodiversity. 

The IFC already screens investments for biodiversity risk, she said in an interview, but is increasingly looking to invest in projects that have benefits for biodiversity or address the key drivers of biodiversity loss.

She used the example of an investment in a shipping company that saw it add to its ballast water tanks, to prevent the spread of invasive species.

But she said there's now increased interest in investments that directly support the restoration of nature. 

Private investors are funding nature restoration through the purchase of carbon credits, she said, and the IFC sees opportunities to integrate natural infrastructure into larger infrastructure projects. 

"Let's say if you're a water utility, you can filter water through building a plant, or you can filter water through wetlands, we are advocating for the adoption of these natural type of infrastructure solutions within larger projects," she said. 

But some environmental groups are skeptical of private-sector involvement in efforts to reduce business's ecological footprint. In a recent report, Friends of the Earth said many such groups talk more about sharing knowledge, disclosure and setting targets than actually reducing their impacts.

That continues to be the case at COP15, the group said.

"Instead of defining policy lines that would prevent business from harming biodiversity, the (Convention on Biological Diversity) has instead invited business to the table and asked them what voluntary measures they would be willing to take. Needless to say, this is not only hugely insufficient but also severely undermines the power of the (convention) to actually regulate business."

Although there is broad support for the conference's overall goals, consensus remains elusive. 

Negotiators say about 900 so-called brackets, points that haven't yet been agreed on, remain in the draft text.

Among the bracketed items is a target to protect 30 per cent of the world's land and water by 2030, a goal supported by Canada, among several other countries. 

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said he remains "very optimistic" that a deal will be reached.

The conference runs until Dec. 19. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin and Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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