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Businesses and biodiversity: they would say that

Ricardo Bayon and Michael Jenkins's Opinion article oversimplifies the role of business in addressing environmental issues (Nature 466, 184–185; 2010).

Biodiversity interacts with essential and interdependent planetary processes, such as climate change and nitrogen cycles, which are already approaching threshold limits (Nature 461, 472–475; 2009). Bayon and Jenkins's view of existing market-based mechanisms — for example, the European Union (EU) carbon market and biodiversity offsets — is too narrow. The EU Emission Trading Scheme may even allow heavy carbon polluters to receive windfall profits through intense corporate lobbying, without reducing emissions (A. G. Hopwood Account. Org. Soc. 34, 433–439, 2009).

Governments are looking at economic valuation as a way to help solve environmental problems. Although this approach may catch the attention of business leaders, there are still difficulties — including how to price complex natural services such as biodiversity adequately.

Proper valuation requires accurate, transparent information. Roldan Muradian and colleagues have concluded that most valuations “are characterized by incomplete information, particularly regarding the relationship between ecosystems, human interventions and the provision of environmental services” (R. Muradian et al. Ecol. Econ. 69, 1202–1208; 2010). Market-based solutions also require, but rarely incorporate, ongoing monitoring of performance.

The economic valuation of ecosystem services overrides local rules of governance and does not address power inequities or poverty. Elite groups tend to be the main beneficiaries of such schemes, which can exacerbate inequities in countries such as Madagascar (M. Sommerville et al. Ecol. Econ. 69, 1262–1271; 2010). Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere continue to fight for land rights and for consultation on the development of natural resources.

Bayon is co-founder of a firm that sells biodiversity offsets and other commercial products. The role of such intermediaries is rarely studied, but is crucial because they determine which ecosystem services are to be traded and influence pricing and social acceptance.

A wholesale redesign of the global economic system is not hard to imagine, as Bayon and Jenkins suggest. It is precisely what is required.

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Whiteman, G., Dorsey, M. & Wittneben, B. Businesses and biodiversity: they would say that. Nature 466, 435 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/466435b

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