InVEST software
π Planet
Are biodiversity concerns compatible with business models?

Balancing business and biodiversity: a step in the right direction?

James Bowers, Chief editor at Polytechnique Insights
On April 12th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Lisa Mandle
Lisa Mandle
Lead Scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University
Key takeaways
  • InVEST, developed by the Natural Capital Project, is an open source software suite used by large groups (such as Unilever or Dow Chemical) wishing to reduce their impact on biodiversity.
  • The aim is to map and quantify the services provided by nature (carbon capture, flood protection, etc.) referred to as “ecosystem services”.
  • InVest thus helps companies to find the best solutions to their problems by taking into account both economic and environmental criteria.

“So much of the val­ue pro­vid­ed to us by nature is tak­en for grant­ed,” explains Lisa Man­dle, lead sci­en­tist for the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. “Our mis­sion is to pro­vide infor­ma­tion on where and how nature mat­ters to peo­ple – and the economy.” 

The Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary organ­i­sa­tion that has been work­ing on the ques­tion of ecosys­tem ser­vices – or ‘nature’s con­tri­bu­tions to peo­ple’ – for 15 years. Using InVEST, a soft­ware they have devel­oped, the team say that they use the best avail­able sci­ence to help deci­sion-mak­ing. “And the busi­ness side is a piece of that,” she explains.

InVEST is an open-source soft­ware suite; a tool for explor­ing dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios of land and ocean use and man­age­ment. “We want­ed to make a tool that was easy to use in a vari­ety of con­texts,” Lisa Man­dle states. InVEST pro­vides a suite of mod­els to com­pare ecosys­tem ser­vices in dif­fer­ent instances. It enables users to map and quan­ti­fy ser­vices such as car­bon seques­tra­tion, flood pro­tec­tion and water qual­i­ty, based on com­mon­ly avail­able data like topo­graph­ic maps.

Glob­al impacts on ecosystems

“To date, we have found over 400 peer-reviewed (and oth­er) pub­li­ca­tions using InVEST. Of them, 82% are authored by peo­ple who are not part of the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project, which is a good sign that our soft­ware is being wide­ly used.” Accord­ing to the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project, InVEST can be applied any­where in the world, and can be espe­cial­ly valu­able in con­texts with low access to data. And, as such, the team recent­ly ran mod­els on a glob­al scale for the first time. Their results, pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence1, indi­cate regions of the world where invest­ment in nat­ur­al resources would have the biggest impact on local com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing the Ganges Basin, East­ern Chi­na and regions of sub-Saha­ran Africa. 

“Our approach and tools are a way of show­ing what’s at stake by bring­ing the val­ue of nature into deci­sion-mak­ing and increas­ing trans­paren­cy of the con­se­quences of choic­es made by gov­ern­ments and busi­ness­es on people.” 

Work­ing with big companies

“In addi­tion to gov­ern­ments, NGOs, and research insti­tu­tions, we have worked with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies in the pri­vate sec­tor,” she explains. One of those is the mul­ti-nation­al, Unilever, which has made some very ambi­tious com­mit­ments to reduc­ing the impacts of their oper­a­tions on the envi­ron­ment. They are look­ing at the impacts of sourc­ing prod­ucts from dif­fer­ent places2.

There are many ways busi­ness­es can make use of the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project’s sci­ence and tools. “Some com­pa­nies like Unilever have peo­ple who have been run­ning our mod­els by them­selves,” she out­lines. In oth­er cas­es, infor­ma­tion is tak­en up by the busi­ness via con­sul­tants and researchers. “Even though we didn’t work direct­ly with them, insur­ance com­pa­ny Swiss Re recent­ly pub­lished a report3 based on our mod­el­ling, too.”

In 2015, the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project pub­lished a study describ­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dow chem­i­cal4. The analy­sis was a case study using one of their facil­i­ties in the Gulf of Texas, which is sus­cep­ti­ble to flood­ing from coastal storms. They want­ed to know whether they should invest in a sea wall to pro­tect it. In this instance, they were faced with the options of (1) build­ing an arti­fi­cial sea wall or (2) restor­ing marsh­lands as a nat­ur­al pro­tec­tion barrier. 

Based on the analy­ses, it was found that an arti­fi­cial sea wall would pro­vide a val­ue of $217 mil­lion to the com­pa­ny, sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than nat­ur­al pro­tec­tions. How­ev­er, upon using InVEST to mod­el dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, the bal­ance shift­ed. They pro­posed anoth­er solu­tion: a mod­er­ate sea wall com­bined with some restora­tion efforts. In that con­fig­u­ra­tion they saw added costal pro­tec­tion from nat­ur­al sys­tems, ben­e­fits to locals in terms of recre­ation­al activ­i­ties and car­bon seques­tra­tion – all of which are con­sid­ered as ecosys­tem ser­vices – pro­vid­ing a ‘hybrid’ out­come that was worth $229 mil­lion to the company. 

More­over, there were added advan­tages for bio­di­ver­si­ty, sup­port­ing fish­eries and wildlife. Thus, pro­vid­ing an argu­ment for a par­tial restora­tion of the land, offer­ing a ‘grey-green’ approach as a com­pro­mise that was both eco­nom­i­cal­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly favourable. 

Con­tribut­ing to wider projects

In some cas­es, the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project is involved in more com­plex, mul­ti-indus­try col­lab­o­ra­tions. One of their projects in Mon­go­lia, led by Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project lead sci­en­tist Becky Chap­lin-Kramer, involves the pro­duc­tion of cash­mere for lux­u­ry fash­ion house, Ker­ing5.

Dur­ing a peri­od of less than 10 years, the demand for cash­mere had quadru­pled, result­ing in a dras­tic increase in goat farm­ing in the Gobi Desert. Over-graz­ing drove a huge drop in veg­e­ta­tion, with neg­a­tive impacts on the envi­ron­ment includ­ing dust from the desert being eas­i­er to whip into clouds that reached as far away as California.

The team were involved in find­ing a solu­tion. To do so, they helped a local mine by offer­ing them a solu­tion for bio­di­ver­si­ty off­set­ting in the region to restore the veg­e­ta­tion. For that, the Nat­ur­al Cap­i­tal Project have been using their ecosys­tem mod­el­ling ser­vices in the form of InVEST, com­bined with NASA satel­lite imagery to mon­i­tor the restora­tion project. 

As such, the team are see­ing ways to inter­act with busi­ness­es to make plans, help deci­sion-mak­ing and mon­i­tor the out­comes. Nev­er­the­less, work­ing with indus­tries in this way requires sub­stan­tial research efforts and time. “We get more requests than we can han­dle,” says Lisa Man­dle. “There is a lot of demand for this kind of infor­ma­tion and the chal­lenge has been pro­vid­ing solu­tions quick­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly enough for the peo­ple who want to use it. It’s great to see these ideas real­ly tak­ing hold around the world.”


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