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[Blog] The elephant in the room: setting normative targets for business

20 December 2017

There were no elephants at the World Forum on Natural Capital held last month in Edinburgh, nor orangutans, or pandas – apart from the one in the WWF logo. Not even a Scottish puffin. At a stately conference center with over 700 delegates from all over the world uniting the realms of business, governments, science, financial Institutions, standard setters, and NGOs, nature itself continued to be the elephant in – or rather outside - the room.

What did make it to the agenda? The agenda was packed with an elegant mixture of plenary sessions, smaller debates and workshops, and there was a lot of space to mingle, including during the conference dinner held on the first day. Companies proudly showed their work and results in applying the Natural Capital Protocol within their business. Governments spoke about their role in this emerging field. NGOs presented their views and their role as both a critical observer and collaborative partner.

Crossing planetary boundaries

The reality on the ground however tells us a different story. We are still losing biodiversity at an ever increasing and alarming rate. Today even once abundant species like giraffes show a drastic decline. The WWF Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2016.  As a result we humans have pushed four out of nine planetary systems – climate change, biodiversity loss, land use (deforestation) and bio-chemical flow - beyond safe limits. Scientists suggest we have transitioned from the mild, stable Holocene good for human kind, to a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.

Although the concept of natural capital – which was promoted at the conference - has helped put nature on the agenda as a risk to business and governments, we are not nearly moving fast and far enough. We need to work on a new model that not only measures but also values the steps we are taking. We need a normative framework. A normative lens to look at the reality at stake.

One Planet Thinking: a normative framework

One Planet Thinking offers society a fundamentally new perspective on living and working within the ecological limits of the planet we call home.  A cornerstone of this new program is reliance on a normative framework for using, sharing and governing natural resources. This framework prescribes a safe operating space for production and consumption, the parameters of which are based on scientific consensus. Successful implementation of One Planet Thinking will mitigate many of the considerable risks associated with human alteration of Earth’s critical life support systems.

One Planet Thinking is relevant to companies, financial institutions and governments at local, regional and national levels. Companies that desire to work within the boundaries of our planet will benefit from external guidance and inspiring learning experiences.  Financial institutions, NGOs and the scientific community all have a role too. They will monitor progress while continuing to develop models and methodologies needed to support business and governments on their One Planet journey.

We see the Natural Capital Protocol as a powerful first step towards creating a standardized framework for measuring and valuing our stock of (non) renewable natural resources and to support sustainable decisions. But when is a decision truly sustainable? That’s where One Planet Thinking comes in: by setting concrete targets for business to stay within the planetary boundaries, it answers the question ‘how much is good enough?’.

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More articles by: Romie Goedicke