This article explores the role of Natural Capital within the SDGs and addresses in particular the connexions that exist between SDGs targets. It provide as well some statistics on the maturity of a set of companies on related topics of biodiversity, water, soil, land use and forests.
You are probably now aware of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were published by the UN earlier this year. They are composed of 17 goals and 169 targets, each single one having been discussed at length in news articles in the past months.
Some called it a plan and even a list of priorities, however I had a hard time figuring out what the priority was when I looked at those 169 targets. I decided to have a closer look at them to answer the many questions that arose in my mind about the role of natural capital in the SDGs, the relative importance of targets, the role of natural capital and so on.
The first quick analysis showed that 19 targets are primarily about natural capital, and this number rises to 36 when more than just natural capital is considered, such as built or financial capital. By extending this analysis, which took me a bit longer this time, I identified that these 36 targets contribute to more than 50% of all SDGs targets, through more than 180 direct and positive links. By “direct” I mean that a clear impact can be assessed, such as investing in water-related ecosystems will help reach the target to have access to water for all. More surprisingly, I identified also 152 negative links, as some targets may be reached at the expense of natural capital. This result shows that you cannot just pick the target which works best for your business sustainability strategy and move on, as seen many times recently in corporate communications. Systemic thinking is what is required here. To create a positive impact, and possibly avoid collateral damage, you must understand the system dynamic, as we will see below, and focus on the targets that will unlock the highest value, for society and for your business.
Speaking about system thinking, are there targets which are more connected than others? Using the links identified, I observe that sustainable agriculture (target 2.4) and in water-related ecosystems (targets 6.6) are the two most connected targets. Other targets requiring the sustainable management of forests, land and soil (15.2 and 15.3) are just corollaries. The single target that I could connect even more to other targets is the 15.9, which recommends integrating ecosystem and biodiversity values into all management systems and decisions. It shows the relevance and importance of the work of the Natural Capital Coalition, which is currently developing a Natural Capital accounting Protocol for the private sector. It will be at the basis of the business case of sustainable development.
So which targets of the SDGS are benefiting the most from an investment in natural capital? These are 6.1 targeting access to water, 13.1 focusing on resilience and adaptation to climate change and 2.3 requiring to double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small scale food producers. The link is quickly done with natural capital. If you are serious about access to water, don’t just build water wells, but invest in water-related ecosystems too. If you are serious about climate change resilience and adaptation, don’t invest only in energy efficiency and renewable energy, but invest as well in green infrastructure. If you are serious about feeding the world together with smallholders, then let’s start thinking about investing in soil quality and ecosystem-based solutions, such as agro-forestry.
Businesses and our economy have been shown to rely heavily on natural capital. I will not repeat again the many evidences and reports around it here, but I will highlight again the findings above which identified 152 negative links affecting natural capital, which are mostly related to the economic development targets. We know now that if we lose natural capital, it is the entire wealth of society, including economic value, which we are losing. We have no choice but to protect and develop our economy and natural capital should hand in hand.
The engagement of the private sector is crucial. To illustrate what remains to be done, I use a recent study I have done, that reviewed all CSR reports from 174 multi-national companies, all members of the WBCSD. I found that less than 40% of companies identified biodiversity (at the core of natural capital) as a material issue. It falls under 20% for topics such as land use, soil and forests. Natural capital is only mentioned by 9 companies out of the 174 reviewed. Although water has been identified as material by 75% of companies, this figure drops to 20% when we consider supply chain exposition to water related risks, which is the principal issue in the many sectors.
Those observations lead me to tell you: Start valuing natural capital! And let’s solve more than half the world’s problems with it.