Disney and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 2 of 2): Nature-Based Climate Solutions

May 11, 2020 by MARK ASPELIN

“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?”

—Walt Disney (1901-1966)

To continue our look at Disney’s wildlife and biodiversity conservation efforts, today we’ll focus on the company’s “Natural Climate Solutions” strategy. Natural climate solutions refers to the protection of natural areas, such as forests, that provide food, shelter, and income for local communities, provide habitat for wildlife, and reduce the impact of climate change.

These natural climate solutions are part of a three-pronged strategy that the company is using to achieve its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. This year (2020), Disney’s emission reduction goal is to reduce its net emissions by 50% compared to a 2012 baseline. The first two strategies that Disney pursues include efforts to reduce the use of fuels and to look for lower carbon alternatives. Disney then uses carbon offsets to go the rest of the way to accomplish its goals. These carbon offsets come in the form of forest offsets, with the reasoning that if we can slow the rate of deforestation then we reduce the amount of carbon emissions into the air.

To execute this strategy, Disney invests in scalable, science-based projects that use peer-reviewed protocols and result in verified reductions of emissions. Over the past decade, Disney has invested in 25 projects around the world that meet these criteria. Let’s take a look a one of these projects to better illustrate Disney’s natural climate solutions approach.

Alto Mayo Protected Forest

Disney has provided funding to Conservation International to implement a REDD+ project in nothern Peru. REDD+ is an acronym that stands for a mouthful of words that I can never seem to remember: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation ‘plus’ conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. The project in the San Martin region of northern Peru is called the Alto Mayo Protected Forest (AMPF) project, which has been up and running for nearly a decade.

Alto Mayo Protected Forest is located in the San Martin region of northern Peru

The Alto Mayo Protected Forest project includes 450,000 acres of the Peruvian Amazon, and was designed up front with the goal of supporting both wildlife conservation and the local community.

There are significant deforestation pressures in the AMPF from illegal logging and unsustainable agricultural practices. As a result, the funds from Disney are used to support conservation agreements where the local residents agree not to destroy the forest in exchange for benefits such as technical assistance to improve crop yields, access to medicine, and support to improve school attendance. This approach reduces the community’s reliance on the forest as an economic resource while building local capacity for improved management of the AMPF.

Deforestation in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest

Since 2008, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest project has resulted in conservation agreements and benefits for 235 families, while reducing carbon emissions by over 6.2 million tons, which is equivalent to taking more than 150,000 cars off the road each year. Other benefits from the project include habitat conservation for wildlife as well as improved management of freshwater resources. The forest regulates freshwater sources in the region by acting as a natural filter for more than 240,000 people and the runoff from the forest replenishes local streams and provides irrigation to crops and water to the community.

Farmers have received training on sustainable farming methods and, as a result, have tripled their production yield. They have also seen an improvement in the quality of their products and have started earning more money from their premium, fair-trade, organic coffee, which Disney serves in some of its restaurants.

Deforestation in the areas has declined by 75% since 2008, which is good news for many of the region’s unique species, such as the critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey.

Yellow-tailed woolly monkey (image from Wiley Online Library)

By funding natural climate solutions projects, Disney has contributed to planting over 9 million trees and protecting over 1 million acres of forest, while enabling the company to make good progress towards its greenhouse gas emissions goal. These natural climate solutions projects are good examples of how corporations can make strategic investments that support local communities through economic development and employment, while also protecting wildlife and conserving biodiversity and helping the organization meet its own goals.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Thank You to David Clarke and “Inside EPA” For the Recent Interview and Article About Corporations and Biodiversity

April 27, 2020 By Mark Aspelin

Thank you to David Clarke for his April 10, 2020 interview and article that was published on April 20, 2020 in Inside EPA on the topic of Corporations and Biodiversity. Below is a copy of David’s article.

April 20, 2020

Interview

Corporations May Face Pressure To Accelerate Conservation Programs

April 10, 2020

Many corporations have been slow to adopt broad conservation programs despite the potential that such efforts could boost earnings, but that could change as stakeholder pressure rises for faster and more-aggressive ecosystem protection, says a top conservation biologist.

Mark Aspelin, CEO of the Profitable Conservation consulting firm and the author of a book describing how corporate programs could benefit both corporate profits and biodiversity, in an exclusive interview with Environment Next, says companies could increasingly face calls from shareholders and others for more-aggressive steps to protect habitats and biodiversity.

Aspelin says that, depending on their type of business and the scope of operations, companies adversely affect biodiversity in various ways — and can take steps to reduce those impacts. The impact points are frequently framed using the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human population, and overharvesting.

Mark Aspelin

Mark Aspelin

Pressure for additional conservation measures may arise as a result of the coronavirus spreading health emergencies across the globe, with the United Nations Environment Program posting a statement, “Coronavirus outbreak highlights need to address threats to ecosystems and wildlife.”

With the exception of human population, companies can impact biodiversity in all of the HIPPO areas, most notably through pollution and habitat destruction, which includes climate change. Mining, forestry, oil and gas development, agriculture, and other sectors all have impacts in these two categories, either directly or in their supply chains.

Other sectors have more industry-specific impacts. Shipping and cruise ships, for example, affect invasive species, such as zebra mussels which were brought into the Great Lakes in the 1980s and now have spread to inland lakes in 28 states. Overharvesting is the product of overfishing, which the Environmental Defense Fund has identified as “the most serious threat to our oceans.”

‘Profitable Conservation’

Aspelin began working with corporations in 1998, and in 2018 published his book, “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.” In some cases, companies see opportunity to earn profit by embracing sustainability as their business brand, such as outdoor clothing company Patagonia, non-toxic cleaning products maker Method, green buildings, green roofs, and similar sectors.

In other cases, companies save money through pollution prevention, “design for the environment” approaches, building retrofits, and green infrastructure. Chemical company Union Carbide Corporation, for example, constructed a 110-acre “tertiary treatment wetlands” in Texas to comply with wastewater treatment standards, at a cost of $1.4 million as opposed to $40 million to construct a “gray infrastructure” treatment plant. Union Carbide is a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, whose chief sustainability officer Mary Draves in an exclusive interview with Environment Next described the corporation’s diverse sustainability priorities, including the circular economy and climate change.

In a municipal project, New York City bought land or used conservation easements covering over 130,000 acres to save the $10 billion cost of building a massive drinking water filtration plant, plus saving at least $100 million annually in operating costs.

“I hope those kinds of stories will play out on a much larger scale,” Aspelin says in the interview. Companies do engage in profitable conservation, but “it’s not mainstream by any stretch.” Corporate responsiveness “varies a lot,” depending on the issue, he notes. Corporations are “very much on board” when it comes to pollution because “it’s a language they speak already,” with an easily identifiable return on investment (ROI) from efficient production processes or from finding markets for their outputs, as with circular economy approaches.

Although habitat conservation is not yet “top of mind” for companies, Aspelin expects it will become a more widespread concern as stakeholder pressures for corporate sustainability become stronger, such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s declaration in January that “climate risk is investment risk” and sustainability will be the $6.8 trillion asset manager’s “new standard” for investing.

Climate Change

Although habitat destruction and biodiversity do not have the same resonance with corporations as pollution prevention, climate change is now getting a lot of corporate attention, and company climate commitments indirectly provide biodiversity benefits because altered climate affects habitat composition and the distribution of species, Aspelin says.

Corporate responsiveness to climate change pressures “is relatively new,” Aspelin notes. “Back in the day,” when he worked with companies “it was up to us to figure out” the primary environmental impacts associated with the companies’ operations, he says.

With Coca Cola, for example, the main environmental impact issue was water, and climate change was not discussed. Regulatory compliance was a major driver, rather than realizing an ROI from investing in conservation, Aspelin says, noting that he worked with a number of sectors, including petrochemicals, oil and gas, railroads, and tourism.

To build awareness of corporate conservation benefits, Aspelin contributed a series of articles about profitable conservation to the E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which has embraced naturalist E.O. Wilson’s call for protecting half the Earth’s lands and seas for biodiversity and is pursuing a Half-Earth Project to advance that goal.

For now, state, federal, and international policies remain the most effective approaches to force conservation, including through the Endangered Species Act, wetlands conservation, and other approaches that use a regulatory “stick, not a carrot.” On the incentive side are carrots such as solar rebates for businesses, green roof tax incentives that save cities storm water management costs, and municipal incentives to join in circular economy systems. Corporate zero waste goals are also working as a voluntary approach.

While not yet mainstream, corporate efforts to protect habitats are occurring in some settings, such as in the oil-rich Permian Basin’s Pecos River watershed, in Texas, where the conservation group National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) is touting its work with the Agriculture Department and major oil and gas companies to protect fish, wildlife, and their habitats in the area, suggesting the effort could serve as a model for other industries.

NFWF also works with Walmart on its Acres for America program, under which the retailer has committed to purchasing and preserving one acre of wildlife habitat in the United States for every acre of land the company develops, Aspelin notes. From 2005 to 2015, the program protected more than 1 million acres through 61 projects in 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and Walmart and NFWF are now in the midst of a 10-year continuation of the program, which NFWF describes as “one of the most important public-private land conservation partnerships in the United States.” While he commends the Walmart programs, Aspelin says it remains “unusual” for companies.

Emerging Pressures

Among emerging pressures on companies is the fact that conservation is a major issue on the environmental agenda this year. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is circulating a “zero draft” calling for urgent steps to protect 30 percent of all ecosystems and for economic sector reforms to reduce by at least 50 percent business and supply chain negative biodiversity impacts. Aspelin suggests that companies with large natural resource impacts would be the most likely to be affected by CBD commitments.

In addition, according to a March 18, 2020, Scientific American article, “Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge,” a number of researchers now believe that humanity’s destruction of biodiversity “creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19” and a new discipline, planetary health, has emerged “that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things, and entire ecosystems.”

From a climate perspective, the pandemic’s resulting economic slowdown has produced huge pollution decreases, Aspelin says, but the focus remains on human health. — David Clarke

How Businesses Can Help Make Half-Earth A Reality: Mitigating Pollution and Climate Change

October 15, 2018 By Mark Aspelin

Part 4 of a 5-part series that is published on the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and Half-Earth Project website at www.half-earthproject.org/news-notes

———————————————————–October 4, 2018

How Businesses Can Help Make Half-Earth a Reality: Mitigating Pollution and Climate Change

by Mark AspelinPart 4 of a 5-part series

This week, we’ll focus on the role that companies play to address pollution, the third biggest threat to biodiversity. This post will also cover the special form of pollution known as climate change.

“Pollution” refers to the introduction of contaminants, such as chemicals, light, noise, or heat, into the natural environment where they may cause negative changes. For example, herbicides and pesticides cause harm to nontarget species, such as insect pollinators, and pose a risk to human health. The discharge of detergents, fertilizers, and sewage into aquatic systems can cause an excess of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which disrupt ecosystems by causing the overgrowth and decay of plants, algae, and phytoplankton. The result is a severe decline in water quality and the creation of an aquatic environment that promotes the survival of simple algae and plankton over more complicated plants.

Then we have the example of acid rain. The burning of fossil fuels generates air pollutants that can either remain in the air as particle pollutants or fall to the ground in the form of acid rain. The sulfuric- and nitric-acid components of acid rain can lead to the acidification of lakes, streams, and forest soils. Species of fish, amphibians, clams, snails, insects, and plants can have a difficult time surviving in acidic conditions. Fish eggs can’t hatch if the pH of water is too low, and fish species, such as salmon, may abandon their spawning areas. When fewer fish spawn and fewer eggs hatch, it creates fewer food options for predators. Acid rain also harms plants and trees by slowing their growth, damaging their leaves, and making the soil more toxic to plants. The key point is that pollution, in all its forms, can cause serious, widespread harm to wildlife and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Then we have the special form of pollution known as climate change, caused by the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment. The biggest human-caused sources of these “greenhouse gases”—particularly carbon dioxide—are a result of burning fossil fuels and cutting down carbon-absorbing forests.

Increases in temperature can have a massive impact on wildlife. Some habitats may disappear due to rising sea levels, which are caused by the melting of mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets. Temperature changes have an impact on flowering and fruiting times for plants. They also have a significant impact on the habitat ranges that are occupied by animals. Biologists on the ground are witnessing significant shifts in habitat ranges and species composition in different parts of the world. Some species are showing up in areas where they haven’t been seen previously while other species are starting to disappear from areas where they were once abundant. I recently went to a presentation that showed slide after slide of striking shifts in locations where New Mexico birds have been spotted in the state over the past few decades. For species that can survive in a wide variety of habitat patches, climate change may not pose a major threat. However, species that are isolated in just a few habitat patches or are restricted to mountaintops may not be able to rapidly shift their distribution to survive.

What Can Corporations Do?

Fortunately, pollution is one biodiversity threat that corporations of all shapes and sizes are willing to address, at least to some degree. This is largely due to the thousands of pages of environmental regulations with which corporations must comply to ensure that processes and controls are in place for air emissions, wastewater and stormwater discharge, and hazardous-material transport and storage. However, regulatory pressure isn’t the only reason why corporations pay close attention to pollution. Many of the actions that corporations take to prevent pollution also produce significant cost savings. In addition, the approach that corporations need to take to address pollution include processes and ways of thinking that are familiar to them. When you talk about “minimizing waste” and “improving process efficiency,” you’re speaking the language of business. Waste minimization and process efficiency are topics that already get a lot of attention in corporations through a variety of initiatives, such as Lean, Six Sigma, and quality-management systems.

Companies typically adopt one or more of the following five strategies to address the threats of pollution and climate change: pollution prevention, carbon offsets, environmental design, green building, and green infrastructure. Let’s look at each of these strategies in more detail.

Strategy #1: Pollution Prevention. Most corporations have a pollution-prevention program or project in place, often using the well-known “reduce, reuse, and recycle” concept. Many of these pollution-prevention efforts are driven by regulations, following specific guidance from various regulatory agencies. Other pollution-prevention initiatives aim to go beyond compliance, driven by a company’s desire to identify cost-saving opportunities that also reduce pollution. Pollution-prevention activities that yield the greatest value for business and the environment will vary, depending on the company, industry, and location, but they typically include a combination of training programs, energy audits, “green IT” practices, transportation and fleet efficiency efforts, and initiatives to reduce food and beverage waste and unnecessary packaging. For example, Walmart created a tool for apparel buyers and sourcing teams to help them optimize the size of corrugated cardboard shipping cartons. As a result, Walmart was able to reduce the number of boxes shipped by 8.1 million in one year, saving 6.3 million pounds of corrugate, 7,800 metric tons of greenhouse gases, and US$ 15.3 million in operational costs.

Strategy #2: Carbon Offsets. Carbon offsets (also known as “greenhouse-gas offsets”) are a popular tool that corporations use to address climate change, where the company reduces emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in one area to compensate for emissions that are made elsewhere. This benefits companies by enabling them to meet regulatory requirements at a significantly lower cost compared with the effort and resources required to directly reduce emissions from operations. As for the benefits of carbon offsets to wildlife and biodiversity, the jury is still out.

Strategy #3: Environmental Design. A third powerful corporate strategy for addressing pollution and climate change is to design products, processes, or services in a way that reduces impacts to human health and the environment. This approach is often called Design for the Environment (DfE), and the concept has been around since the early 1990s. Companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Philips use DfE to identify chemical alternatives that are better for the environment without sacrificing product quality or performance. These companies also look for ways to make it safer and easier to reuse or dispose of products at the end of a product’s useful life. For example, HP’s DfE program identified an opportunity to use recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic for most of its ink cartridges. This enabled HP to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 43 million pounds from 2013 to 2015, which is equivalent to taking 4,125 cars off the road for one year.

Strategy #4: Green Building. Green building is a well-known, cost-effective, environmental-management strategy that businesses have adopted with enormous success. Its popularity continues to grow thanks to numerous examples of green buildings that have yielded significant reductions in environmental impacts while providing a substantial return on investment. For example, in 2006, Adobe estimated a net-present-value rate of return of nearly 20:1 for the initial investment in its headquarters towers. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that commercial building owners and managers will invest US$ 960 billion globally between 2015 and 2023 on greening their existing buildings. The primary areas of focus are expected to include the installation of more energy-efficient windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Strategy #5: Green Infrastructure. Green infrastructure is similar to green building, but it can take some different forms than a building or roof. The term “green infrastructure” is defined differently by various organizations, but it generally refers to natural systems that are managed to address urban challenges, such as stormwater management, climate adaptation, clean water, and healthy soils. For example, Union Carbide Corporation, a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, constructed a 110-acre wetland in Texas to serve the function of a wastewater-treatment facility. The wetland was 100% compliant from day zero with all discharge requirements. In addition, the constructed wetland has low energy, maintenance, and resource requirements with no need for pumps, additives, an oxygen system, or added water, and there are no biosolids to handle or dispose. Compared with a wastewater treatment plant, the wetland supports greater biodiversity of plants, animals, and micro-organisms. From a cost perspective, the US$ 1.4 million initial investment and operational capital pales in comparison to the US$ 40 million price tag for a gray infrastructure alternative. It’s a good example of a win-win, profitable-conservation project.

I hope this post gives you a better understanding of how companies can mitigate pollution and climate changes in ways that also benefit biodiversity and wildlife, and can help us get to Half-Earth. In next week’s post, we’ll turn our attention to the final biodiversity threat that we’ll be covering in this series: overharvesting.