Greenwashing is a threat to achieving a Nature Positive world

The concept of Nature Positive envisages a planet where the current rapid loss of biodiversity is halted and reversed, and nature is restored. This is vitally and urgently needed in order to stop the upcoming global mass extinction of species as a result of human destruction of nature, and to maintain the prosperity and wellbeing of humanity, which relies on nature for food, water, clean air, and a healthy environment.

A new study, led by the University of Queensland with collaborators from Oxford Biology, warns that vigilance is needed to prevent the concept of a Nature Positive world being threatened by greenwashing. Otherwise, there is a danger that Nature Positive approaches may undermine existing frameworks designed to minimise the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.

“Nature Positive" has already become a popular phrase within the conservation community, and has been likened to the concept of "Net Zero" for climate change campaigns. Businesses, governments, financiers, and conservation organisations have rapidly embraced the idea and made pledges to become Nature Positive. For instance, more than 90 world leaders have signed on to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which calls for a Nature Positive future to be achieved by 2030, and 11 of the global Fortune 100 companies already have aspirations to contribute to the global Nature Positive goal.

However, an international team of researchers has concluded that some of these pledges lack the rigorous scientific framework needed to achieve real impacts. This puts Nature Positive commitments at risk of becoming little more than greenwash: misleading or deceptive publicity disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Furthermore, a ‘Nature Positive approach’ may even cause active harm if it distracts from existing schemes that focus on avoiding and reducing the harmful impacts of economic development on biodiversity.

For instance, infrastructure projects are typically required to carry out an environmental impact assessment before being approved, and then to carry out actions to avoid and minimise impacts on biodiversity, restore biodiversity damaged by the project, and offset any remaining impacts. These actions should ensure that overall biodiversity is left in at least as good a state as it was before the project began (following the so-called "mitigation hierarchy" towards Biodiversity Net Gain). However, Nature Positive pledges do not necessarily need to include concrete commitments to follow the Mitigation Hierarchy framework. 

The research team outlined several instances where Nature Positive greenwashing is already taking place:

  • Loose application of the term by NGOs, to mean simply ‘doing things that are good for nature’, for example as part of a broader strategy to tackle climate change.
  • Companies linking the concept with questionable biodiversity credit schemes, whose impact cannot be verified.
  • Proposals by the Australian Government to relax like-for-like compensation requirements. This would allow losses of already highly threatened biodiversity, for which offsets are difficult or impossible, as long as a more general ‘nature positive’ outcome is achieved.

Recent work* by researchers in Oxford University’s Department of Biology has highlighted the very varied ways in which different businesses and organisations interpret Nature Positive, including UK-based organisations such as the UK Business and Biodiversity Forum, which has a Nature Positive Pledge that companies can make. Many of these definitions don't have at their core the use of the Mitigation Hierarchy to first address a company's direct impacts on nature, before moving on to broader actions to support nature.

Contributing author Dr Joseph Bull said:

“There is a real concern that - by focusing attention so strongly onto biodiversity credit schemes via Nature Positive pledges – we risk displacing more urgent efforts to minimise impacts on biodiversity. Laudable though proactive conservation efforts are, we will only get to Nature Positive if they come after negative impacts have been mitigated.”

Contributing author Professor Dame EJ Milner-Gulland said:

“The concept of Nature Positive provides an optimistic and aspirational vision of the future we want for humanity and for nature. But we mustn't let aspirational phrases substitute for taking practical steps to protect nature from damage as much as possible, and ensuring that any damage that is done is fully and demonstrably compensated for. There can be no shortcuts.”