The Taskforce for Nature-based Financial Disclosures (TNFD) guides companies on how to locate and understand their nature-related dependencies and impacts — but such assessments will only be possible when we overcome our massive biodiversity data gaps.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure, after all.
This is not news to the TNFD. In addition to developing a disclosure framework, the taskforce has published a high-level scoping study calling for the creation of a global public data facility to support efforts to stem the loss of nature.
“Government, business, finance and civil society can’t take effective action on nature and climate challenges without high-quality, comparable and easily accessible data,” said TNFD Executive Director Tony Goldner on the margins of the Amazon Summit in Belem, Brazil.
But taking a step back, why do we have a lack of biodiversity data? Where are the biggest gaps? And then, what do we do about it? I put these three questions to:
- Alex Logan, the co-founder of nature-tech startup Cecil, which helps organisations to make confident decisions and fulfil documentation, audit and reporting requirements for nature;
- Camille Goldstone-Henry and Jada Andersen, the co-founders of nature-tech startup Xylo Systems, which helps property development and energy companies to measure and manage their biodiversity footprint; and
- Wedgetail's very own Lisa Miller.
Why do we have a lack of biodiversity data?
The key to quantifying biodiversity is specificity. It’s not simply a matter of going to a location and capturing a whole lot of data. It needs to be the right data, analysed with the right methodology.
To illustrate this, Alex tells me about a project Cecil is supporting, led by a sustainability agriculture fund working to improve the environmental condition of its assets.
“The team is implementing a range of Accounting for Nature methodologies including native vegetation, native fauna and soil methods,” he says.
“The native fauna method is the woodland bird assessment methodology. In order to collect this data, they’ve been out in the field, surveying for a small-body, native bird in a particular condition category across the properties that they're assessing.
“This localised information is a good example of how specific this information needs to be and how rigorous the data collection process has to be. But this is just one part of the bigger picture for understanding the state of nature for that asset.
“If you take that as an example of high-quality information, and then consider it’s just one dimension of a single asset, you can see how complex it is to map an entire ecosystem.”
This example also highlights how specific biodiversity information can be.
“It shows where the complexity lies and why it's going to be really important for us to invest in finding the right ways to apply that data and be able to transparently report it back,” Alex adds.
The data most companies are currently using is a long way away from this quality, Alex tells me. Most companies are currently using IBAT and ENCORE, which are global and regional datasets which give companies a view of biodiversity and natural capital exposure up to regional and sector levels.
“But there’s a big gap between knowing if a species’ entire population is threatened — and knowing if that species resides or travels through a particular property in part of your supply chain,” he explains.
That gap is a massive problem for us to solve. But it’s also a massive opportunity.”
Where are the biggest gaps?
While we do have a lot of biodiversity data already, this just makes our gaps in understanding all the more apparent.
“We have lots of great data where humans are,” Camille tells me. “It's where humans are not that we don't have great data.”
“We’re seeing a lot of tech platforms pop up around the world to help corporates address the TNFD, but they’re focused on satellite imaging and drone imaging, which lends itself really well to vegetation mapping — but that alone isn't biodiversity.”
For example, “we currently have a lot of species presence data, but we don't have a lot of species absence data,” Jada explains.
“We also have lots of habitat mapping data, but there’s a lack of data on habitat quality and changes over time. For example, we can identify ‘this is a eucalypt woodland’, but we might not have any detail on how intact the woodland is, the health of the canopy, and all the other factors that go into measuring habitat quality.”
What’s missing here is specific data — and as we know, specificity is key to accurately quantifying biodiversity.
“We need to get deeper down into species location data, population trends data, even all the way down to tracking the genetic health of populations, which is really important for the long-term health of our smaller, endangered populations in particular,” Camille explains.
How do we close the data gap?
Fostering a culture of information-sharing, incentivising the collection of localised data and deploying emerging technologies are all critical to bringing much-needed specificity to biodiversity data.
“If we’re going to solve the biodiversity crisis, we need to take an open-source approach. We need to rip down the walls around monitoring technologies,” Alex says.
This stance echoes calls from the TNFD. “Where possible, baseline nature-related data should be accessible to a broad range of stakeholders and not kept behind paywalls or in proprietary systems,” writes the taskforce in its global public data facility scoping paper.
In addition to avoiding silos as our data bank grows, Alex says we also need to incentivise the collection of localised data.
"There are so many creative ways we can incentivise data collection and nature-positive action that we aren’t yet exploring — partially because we don’t have the infrastructure to organise, collect and analyse data at scale yet.
“The Ubers, Amazons and DHLs of the world often have dash-cams on their vehicles, could this data be shared with scientists for ML algorithms to detect biodiversity? We know nature-positive actions reduce risk, could this be reflected in insurance premiums? There’s a world of possibility here, but we have to carefully craft the incentives to encourage the right kinds of behaviour."
“We also need to find ways to bridge older, manual data with any new data sources to ensure we can develop accurate understandings of the health of nature assets.”
On the emerging technology side, we’re seeing rapid innovation around the collection and measurement of data at the ecosystem level. At Wedgetail, Lisa says, we’re especially excited about digital twin tech, bio-acoustic monitoring, eDNA, different LIDAR technologies and data from camera traps. Having deployed all of these into one of our key projects.
“New tech will help ecologists, Indigenous Peoples, farmers and all people working in landscapes to supercharge their work by improving the coverage, speed and accuracy of their sampling efforts,” she explains.
“This data will be the basis of the success of frameworks such as the TNFD and the Global Biodiversity Framework, and it needs to work on small scale farms, at catchment and regional levels and all the way up to planetary scales.”
Once these tech solutions are in market, “the next step is actually making those tools available to corporates in a way that's easy to integrate into existing processes”, Jada says.
“At the moment, corporates are having to deploy ecological consultants.
“These consultants absolutely have a role to play in the nature-positive transition, particularly in ground-truthing biodiversity data for companies that don’t have their own ecology teams. But I fear the processes that we currently have are too slow, data-deficient and make long-term monitoring challenging.
“Corporates need to have access to data and technology to enable them to take action quickly and at scale.”
“At Wedgetail, our mission is to ensure high-integrity restoration and conservation of ecological systems,” Lisa adds. “It’s only with better data that we can ensure humans are having the impact they intend as nature-positive landscape activities gain momentum.”