EU Presidency conference on the role and importance of biodiversity assessments in securing compliance with policy and regulations

Speech Published 15 Nov 2007 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Professor Jacqueline McGlade's speech at the European Business and Biodiversity workshop B: Biodiversity Related Biodiversity Assessments, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 12-13 November 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for this opportunity to speak here at the Presidency initiative on Business and Biodiversity. I want to compliment the Portuguese Presidency and the organisers for the diversity of the programme, addressing the interface between science, conservation, policy and business.

Today I want to talk about three types of assessments and underline the importance of each in ensuring that globally and locally biodiversity and ecosystems are recognised as an integral part of our lives and crucial to our survival on the planet.

I have been working in the field of biodiversity for 30 years, and for most of that time, business was usually considered by the environmental movement as 'the enemy', or at best a necessary evil. This resulted in a tense and rather unproductive relationship. Perhaps the proverbial ice between business and the biodiversity community is beginning to melt, but even a cursory glance at the emerging controversies around agrofuels in developing countries shows that there is still a cold wasteland of mistrust.

So today I would like to talk today about the importance of assessments of biodiversity and ecosystems in bridging the gaps between policy-makers and business and between business and the citizen.


Policy-makers and businesses need sound information and assessments on the state of the environment and the effectiveness of policies in achieving their outcomes, in order to set targets, assess progress, anticipate changes in resilience and ecosystem functioning and thereby protect human and ecological well-being. There are many different types of policy relevant assessments, but broadly speaking they fall into two categories — scientific and intergovernmental.

To meet today's challenges I would like to suggest that there is an urgent need for a third type, one where business, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations and citizens will need to participate and be properly engaged.

To run with this overview I would like to focus on one aspect of policies concerning biodiversity and ecosystems i.e. resilience — the capacity to absorb the effects of disturbances without shifting into a qualitatively different state.

It is gradually becoming accepted that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems increase the resilience of societies and hence the planet to regulate itself. In today's setting, where consumption and production patterns are served by ecosystems around the world, and where individuals, businesses and governments can exert a global reach, many different types of policy can affect the resilience of the ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide. From transport to energy, from agriculture to cultural well-being, all can manifest themselves in a way that can have cascading sets of unintended consequences, leading us inevitably to rapid non-linear changes and tipping points.

How can biodiversity assessments help us anticipate and respond to these challenges?

The first type of biodiversity assessment is that resulting from governmental and intergovernmental processes. An example at the European level is the State and outlook report on the environment produced every five years by the European Environment Agency under its founding regulation. In the assessment biodiversity and ecosystems are assessed thematically and as part of an integrated assessment framework known as DPSIR — drivers, pressures, state, impacts and responses.

The assessment is based on priority data flows, referring to all the major environmental policies, critical analyses of the effectiveness of policies in different thematic areas and a combination of models, simulations and scientific analyses. The work of the EEA relies to a very large extent on the work of its Eionet, comprised of several hundred officially recognised individuals and institutions who assist the EEA gather scientific evidence and data from countries and regions, check for veracity and coverage and work with the originators of data on the meaning of variations and trends. It demands a level of transparency that goes far beyond the norms of most institutions, and this is necessary because the assessments are about performance, accountability, league tables and comparisons amongst countries and authorities. In this area, I believe Europe is leading the way, although encouragingly, we can see similar structures for assessments being mooted in other parts of the world.

These assessments or rather their results are of course not always liked by governments because they do not necessarily want to be criticised over their performance. Nevertheless, they continue to support this process because in the end the benefits are obvious.

In the 2005 SOER report, we concluded that the state of the environment in Europe was mixed, and highlighted that we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. On a positive note, we also said that environmental policy in the EU is obviously working. Let us imagine for a moment a Europe in which there was no environmental policy. What would the European environment look like then? Just two examples:

  • lead would still be being pumped into the air from much of our car fleet; and
  • the life in our rivers, lakes and estuaries would still be choked by effluent, not to mention the disgusting prospect of bathing in coastal waters polluted by sewage.

A final important point — especially for business — is that the report highlighted that the unsustainable development of some key economic sectors was a major barrier to further improvements in the environment. The need to address sustainable consumption and production was highlighted as an urgent area for action and is now the cornerstone of much of European policy development.


In 2006, we made a more detailed assessment of the state of biodiversity in a first report on progress towards the 2010 target, and last month, the EEA published the 'Belgrade report', the fourth assessment of Europe's environment, prepared as a support to the UNECE 'Environment for Europe' process. In it, the stark reality of today’s environment for the 890 million citizens in the region was underlined: 100 million people without access to drinking water or sanitation, 2 million excess deaths from air pollution. The chapter on biodiversity was also sobering:

  • biodiversity decline and the loss of ecosystem services continue to be a major concern in the pan-European region. The target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 will not be achieved without additional efforts;
  • the main pressures on biodiversity continue to be urban sprawl, infrastructure development, acidification, eutrophication, desertification, overexploitation, and intensification of agriculture and land abandonment. Climate change is increasingly recognised as a serious threat.

The next biodiversity assessment is to be published in 2009 using the now agreed set of 26 biodiversity indicators to measure progress towards the 2010 target published last month.

Finally, there is the ecosystem assessment for Europe — known as Eureca — to be completed in 2012. This will build on the conceptual framework of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and directly link into major European policies. As you can note, there is much going on, and overall governments respond positively to this form of assessment especially where they have been consulted and deeply involved in.

The second major type of assessment is the one that is scientifically driven, without any necessary link to specific policy instruments or governance. One example where resilience was a key issue is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). The MA has been mentioned numerous times over the past day and a half, so I will not go into the detail of the findings.

The main characteristic of MA assessment was that it was science driven, with little or no formal government participation. Oversimplifying, one could say that it was produced by a bunch of scientists getting together and making a thorough assessment of the world’s ecosystems.

The major progress in the MA compared to the earlier Global Biodiversity assessment was that the MA developed 'buy-in' from the intended users — governments, biodiversity related conventions, and also business — along the way. It brought a new conceptual thinking to the table and was backed up by excellent science and world reknowned scientists. It was not driven by the users, but by scientists, and in stark contrast to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, it was not a negotiated text.

What was missing from the MA in terms of its ability to speak authoritatively to governments about resilience was a quantitative framework. Having quantitative information on the drivers, pressures, state and impacts, makes it easier to devise the adequate responses. So in the follow-up to the MA, such a quantitative framework will need to be made possible for example through the work underway at the EEA on ecosystem accounting and within the Potsdam initiative on valuation and the cost of inaction. (This is a counterpart to Sir Nicholas Stern's analysis which showed that the impacts of climate change could be offset by an investment today of 2–3 % GDP). Whether or not such a different MA model means that it would need to become part of an intergovernmental process, remains to be seen. 

What we do know is that we need a quantitative framework if we are to move beyond case studies and scale the findings up from the local to the global.

This brings me to the third type of assessment which is broadly speaking missing from our repertoire — a rapid assessment capacity and one involving citizens, business and governments to provide localised, verifiable information on ecosystem health, resource use and flows. One which resonates with President Sarkosy's grenelle in which responsibilities for the helath of the environment and hence society and the economy lie with everyone.

As Ladislav Miko from DG Environment mentioned yesterday, the EEA is working with the Commission on a future 2012 ecosystem assessment for Europe. Ecosystem accounts will figure prominently in this work. I believe that this work on ecosystem accounting will be of interest to business and citizens alike because it will enable everyone to see just who is using the world’s natural capital and for what purpose.

Countries and more and more companies and citizens want to know and understand the reality of the costs of using the earth’s natural capital and the consequences of policies on the resilience and sustainability of ecosystems. However, there is no amortization of Nature either in national accounts or in business accounting. It is also sometimes very difficult to know who to believe.

The ultimate purpose of the ecosystem accounting being implemented by the EEA is to measure the gap between the reality of ecosystem integrity and the objectives stated in national laws, European regulations and directives and international conventions (CBD, Kyoto…) and then to calculate the full maintenance, sustainability and restoration costs of meeting these objectives. This additional element of sustainability should be calculated both for national ecosystems and for ecosystem input to imported products. For both countries and companies, such calculations leads to measuring a full cost of commodities which includes, in addition to market prices, the cost of their footprint on the ecosystems. This is what going beyond GDP begins to look like.

To obtain the type of information and data needed to achieve this level of understanding will obviously require not only the framework for analysis such as resilience mapping and ecosystem accounting but also a much more intense interaction between consumers and producers as well as with governments to provide local up to date information. The data will also need to be freely available and easily accessible.

I will now give an example of the third type of assessment. As mentioned above, many policies are shown to have negative unintended consequences, especially in regard to human well-being and ecological resilience. The example I will use to underline the urgency of the need for a new type of assessment is agrofuels. Note the term agrofuels not biofuels; this semantic point is important because as it is currently playing out, the demand for biofuels as stated in European and various governmental policies, has less to do with bio as related to biodiversity and more to do with the intensive, industrial agricultural practice of monocropping over thousands of hectares.

The numbers being discussed are mind boggling: the Indian government is talking of planting 14 million hectares of land with jatropha, the Inter-American Development Bank states that Brazil has 120 million hectares that could be cultivated with agrofuel crops, and an agrofuel group is speaking of 379 million hectares being available in 15 African countries. The justification for the large-scale cultivation of agrofuels is the need to combat climate change. However, even as global energy consumption is set to increase significantly, renewable energy worldwide, including agrofuels, is estimated by the US government and other agencies, to contribute as little as less than 10 % of global energy consumption.

One of the major causes of global warming is agro-industrial farming itself; within farming the use of chemical fertilisers introduces large amounts of nitrogen into the soil and nitrous oxide into the air and deforestation, linked to the expansion of crop monoculture, leads to decarbonisation. The emissions from the transport of food around the world is a further element in the equation. If we now envisage further large scale changes in land use on the scale set out by the countries and companies involved in the production of agrofuels, it is abundantly clear that the net gains of creating fuels from non-fossil sources could easily be lost through emissions via the loss of forest, drying out of peat and other associated processes linked to land use.

If our primary objective is to provide high quality objective policy relevant advice in the form of a diagnosis of such a rapidly evolving situation and a prognosis on the policy implications, we will need to rethink how and what type of information can be provided. We will need to be able to run models to examine future scenarios, identify where the precautionary principle needs to be upheld and more information gathered and at the same time address the complexity of the interactions that sectoral policies involve.

The assessments will need to be factual, scientifically credible and verifiable, timely and relevant, authoritative, policy relevant and well-communicated. To gain rapid consensus about which actions are needed to address significant problems or even to act in a precautionary way, we cannot rely on political rhetoric.

Instead we need to establish a formally recognised network of citizen observers with the capacity to record their observations and local knowledge on climate change and biodiversity as part of a global observatory, an observatory that would be able to provide independent, verifiable information on the state of the environment. These types of programme already exist in parts of the world; for example in Europe and Latin America there have been a range of activities involving individuals observing changes in the seasonal timing of behaviour and appearance of birds and plants. Farmers are recording these changes directly and indirectly through their daily work. They exist in the scientific community in the form of self-referencing databases of observations and monitoring such as Fishbase. The data points are entered by authenticated observers, but can be easily updated by new observations taken by others.

Connecting people up into a global observatory, helped through programmes funded by a range of foundations to understand how to record flora and fauna as well as key climatic indicators is already being planned. The question now is to ensure that the observers gain formal recognition through internationally accredited processes, that they include elders and many who carry traditional and often oral knowledge, that the information is legitimised through good governance processes, is made readily and freely available for all to examine and scrutinise, and that there is a set of independent institutions, funded without vested interest, recognised by government and legitimised by citizens and business, who are given the authority to undertake rapid assessments of the data and make, wherever needed, assessments of policy relevance.

We can see strong parallels in the field of emergency and civil protection where many players are co-ordinated to respond very quickly to disasters, including Green Cross, the initiative set up by Gorbachev to run alongside the Red Cross and support the recovery of ecosystems.

What does this all mean for business?

The role of business in the arena of reporting is clear. Much of the information that is needed to estimate ecosystem resilience can be divulged without compromising industrial competitiveness, so participation, and perhaps more importantly absence of participation in reporting, is a strong incentive.

Much of what I have said before about assessments will readily appeal to policy-makers - they are the ones who ask for large scale assessments and scientists — they are the ones doing the work. As a scientist working with and for policy-makers, I would like to see assessments being based on the best available science, being policy relevant, and also transparent about uncertainties. But to ensure that assessments are used by business we need to see a better and more transparent contract around data provision and the diagnosis of business decisions on the environment and biodiversity. When such assessments are available, I would like to see them made widely available so that they can be actually used, by policy-makers, business and basically anybody else.

Business will benefit from taking on board assessment findings. The MA synthesis report for business suggests some impacts on business from the changes in our ecosystems. I quote a few examples

  • 'Ecosystem services that are freely available today will cease to be available or become more costly in the near future. Additional costs that result will be passed downstream to secondary and tertiary industries and will transform the operating environment of all businesses.'
  • 'Loss of ecosystem services will also affect the framework conditions within which businesses operate, influencing customer preferences, stockholder expectations, regulatory regimes, governmental policies, employee well-being, and the availability of finance and insurance.'
  • 'Higher operating costs or reduced operating flexibility should be expected due to diminished or degraded resources (such as fresh water) or increased regulation.'
  • On a positive note, 'New business opportunities will emerge as demand grows for more efficient or different ways to use ecosystem services.'

You will agree the potential impacts are major and need to be considered in business planning and operations.

Finally, we are here at a European conference, but few — if any — of the companies present here only operate in Europe. Europe through its ecological footprint impacts on the environment and biodiversity far beyond its borders. Europeans' consumption may be half of that of people living in the USA, but it is double that of people living in Brazil, India and China. Business is well placed to assess and address some of these global impacts.

Good decisions depend on sound information. The three types of assessment all have their place, the third type is one we should work together on to achieve so that in the very near future we can respond in an altogether more immediate, informed, relevant and objective way to ongoing changes in ecosystems and biodiversity caused by climate change and policies reaching across the world.

Thank you for your attention.


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