Can technology save nature?
The World Economic Forum’s Biodiversity Credits Working Group had a couple of sessions last week discussing the use of technology in the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of biodiversity. BeZero Carbon was one of three invited speakers, and we outlined our ongoing project in Uganda to showcase the use of environmental DNA (eDNA). The question of MRV presents a significant challenge to the development of biodiversity credits but it’s clear there are no definitive solutions yet. Our research aims to push forward promising novel approaches and we received some very positive feedback in presentations to audiences in both APAC and Americas time zones.
Technological advances range from on the ground measurement – eDNA, acoustic sampling, AI-powered camera traps and so on – to improved remote sensing capabilities, such as satellite-based LiDAR and hyperspectral arrays. These can all help but don’t get past some of the non-technical challenges, such as the time and effort required to actually collect the data. The crucial balance between cost and quality is still largely tipped in the wrong direction, meaning that either crucial details on biodiversity change are missed or the project economics don’t work.
One of the issues in biodiversity MRV relates to the likelihood that credit issuing projects will ultimately be rated, just as voluntary carbon projects are now. Risk factors such as additionality, non-permanence, over-crediting and leakage are every bit as relevant for biodiversity projects as they are for carbon. There is little evidence that they are being considered so far but without them new markets will suffer from the same lack of transparency that dogged the voluntary carbon market. The implied assumption that a credit is a binary, all-or-nothing thing makes even less sense in the infinitely more complex world of biodiversity than it does for carbon.
Another interesting point of discussion centered on what, exactly, needs to be measured. Aside from the multitude of different ways to quantify and describe biodiversity, might other aspects such as ecosystem function also be considered? Beyond that, perhaps it’s possible to turn the whole challenge around and instead focus on measuring the [human] threats to biodiversity. That would simplify the task and place the emphasis on reducing detrimental impacts, rather than on the specifics of how wildlife responds to them.
Threats to biodiversity tend to fall into a limited number of categories, namely land/sea use change, pollution, species overexploitation, climate change and invasive species/disease. These are potentially easier and cheaper to identify and measure: for example, the amount of chainsaw noise could give an indication of deforestation activity. Recorded reductions over time would indicate less deforestation, and assumptions could then potentially be made about the beneficial impacts to wildlife.
There is undoubted interest in the development of biodiversity credits, but there are three major sticking points at present:
Lack of general agreement in what should be measured and tracked over time;
Uncertainty over the source and magnitude of demand for credits;
Lack of consensus over the nature of associated claims, particularly on the subject of biodiversity offsetting.
Time, however, is extremely pressing. With global biodiversity collapsing, urgent action is needed and biodiversity credits have potential to steer much needed finance into the protection and restoration of nature. Robust proxies must be found to understand project impacts, including those measures that will be required of a rating framework. As technology improves and matures it can be put to use accordingly: in the meantime we musn’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Get in touch to learn more about biodiversity credits or if you have questions about our natural capital research pipeline: firstname.lastname@example.org