π Planet
Are biodiversity concerns compatible with business models?

TESSA: a tool for biodiversity-based decisions

James Bowers, Chief editor at Polytechnique Insights
On April 12th, 2021 |
3 min reading time
Kelvin Peh
Kelvin Peh
Lecturer in Conservation Science at the University of Southampton
Key takeaways
  • TESSA is a tool to help take biodiversity into account in development projects. It is specifically aimed at non-specialists who want to assess the value of a plot of land and the cost of its restoration.
  • The tool has been downloaded 2,500 times in over 69 countries. At least 12% is from the private sector, proof that companies are increasingly taking biodiversity into account in their strategies.
  • The team has partnered with AXA insurance so that the firm’s clients can assess the impact of their portfolios on biodiversity and make decisions accordingly.

Back in 2009, a col­lec­tion of researchers and envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion­ists gath­ered in Cam­bridge for a hori­zon scan­ning work­shop to dis­cuss bio­di­ver­si­ty. One of the out­comes agreed upon by the prac­ti­tion­ers that day was that, at the time, there were no tools for non-experts to col­lect and analyse bio­di­ver­si­ty data to help them make decisions. 

Dr. Kelvin Peh, now a lec­tur­er in con­ser­va­tion sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Southamp­ton, co-devel­oped the tool in the years there­after. “That’s where the idea for TESSA came from,” he says. The project offi­cial­ly began in 2010 at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, “and it’s still alive now.”

TESSA, or Toolk­it for Ecosys­tem Ser­vice Site-based Assess­ment, was orig­i­nal­ly made to help con­ser­va­tion prac­ti­tion­ers under­stand how to eval­u­ate the ecosys­tem ser­vices of a nat­ur­al site. These ser­vices can have val­ue in the activ­i­ties they pro­vide such as flood pro­tec­tion, car­bon stor­age and pol­li­na­tion. But also, in the more direct eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties they can attract such as tourism or cul­tur­al services. 

Local deci­sion-mak­ing

By 2014, TESSA had achieved its first suc­cess sto­ry – a restora­tion project in Wick­en Fen. There, the UK Nation­al Trust had used the toolk­it to assess the finan­cial val­ue of 5,300 hectares of land near Cam­bridge (UK). Con­vert­ed to farm­land in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, plans to restore the area to its nat­ur­al wet­land state were met with oppo­si­tion from local farmers. 

The main argu­ment was the antic­i­pat­ed eco­nom­ic loss­es. In response, the UK Nation­al Trust crunched the num­bers using TESSA, com­par­ing the finan­cial ben­e­fits of Wick­en Fen in the two sce­nar­ios; farm­land vs. restored wet­lands. The results showed that each hectare of land was worth $200 more per year as the lat­ter – thus, pro­vid­ing a tan­gi­ble argu­ment for the restora­tion project. 

Whilst there are already many tools out there, what makes TESSA stand out is that it is specif­i­cal­ly designed for use by non-experts. “It’s not a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el­ling tool as with most oth­ers. Our toolk­it is more like a writ­ten guid­ance doc­u­ment con­tain­ing spe­cif­ic pro­to­cols in the form of an inter­ac­tive pdf, which users can print out and bind into a book.”

Most web-based tools also tend to look at ecosys­tem ser­vices from a nation­al or even glob­al scale. But TESSA is aimed at analy­ses on a local lev­el. It also involves a com­par­a­tive frame­work so, in terms of deci­sions, it can help com­pare two options. “If we are talk­ing about a restora­tion project, this could be a com­par­i­son between the finan­cial val­ue of restored land and that if no action were tak­en,” says Kelvin.

Inter­est from businesses 

Even though Kelvin and his col­leagues ini­tial­ly thought TESSA would be used by con­ser­va­tion prac­ti­tion­ers in devel­op­ing coun­tries, they are also get­ting some atten­tion from gov­ern­ments, busi­ness­es and aca­d­e­mics. “We don’t yet have con­crete exam­ples of how busi­ness­es have used TESSA inter­nal­ly to make deci­sions. But we do know of some who have used TESSA to assess the land that they are sit­ting on.” 

Dur­ing his AXA-Research Fund post-doc fel­low­ship, Kelvin released the first ver­sion of TESSA in 2010, then the sec­ond in 2017. “Now we are look­ing at a beta ver­sion 3, that will be launched in mid-2022.” In the mean­time, Kelvin and his col­leagues have been look­ing back and study­ing how the toolk­it has been used around the world. He states, “our meta-study is yet to be pub­lished, but the results are very much in favour of con­ser­va­tion or restoration.” 

Their ini­tial results show that, since 2010, TESSA has been down­loaded over 2,500 times from at least 69 coun­tries. Of those, ~26% were from envi­ron­men­tal NGOs, ~11% were gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies and as many as 12% were from the pri­vate sec­tor – includ­ing busi­ness­es. “This [lat­ter] is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant as it means busi­ness­es are pay­ing atten­tion to bio­di­ver­si­ty concerns.” 

Accord­ing to Kelvin, busi­ness­es have shown a grow­ing inter­est in assess­ing ecosys­tem ser­vices. “The pri­vate sec­tor is under increas­ing scruti­ny from stake­hold­ers who are expect­ing com­pa­nies to report on the envi­ron­men­tal impact of their investments.”

Cor­po­rate risk 

Kelvin links the need to finan­cial­ly eval­u­ate ecosys­tem ser­vices with deci­sion-mak­ing based on risk in the pri­vate sec­tor. “Once val­ue is estab­lished, it is then eas­i­er to mea­sure risk. Com­pa­nies which are not set­ting tar­gets for them­selves are inher­ent­ly riski­er and prone to big­ger finan­cial pre­mi­ums. For exam­ple, they may have to pay a high­er insur­ance pre­mi­um if they have an unfavourable ecosys­tem ser­vices measurement.”

In line with risk assess­ment, he has teamed up with French insur­ance com­pa­ny, AXA, who are look­ing into bio­di­ver­si­ty for their clients. “Cor­po­rate report­ing of ecosys­tem ser­vices and bio­di­ver­si­ty is quite min­i­mal right now because there aren’t many tools out there. It would be nice for com­pa­nies like AXA to have tools that their clients can use for report­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty impact of their portfolios.”

Indeed, the results of a TESSA analy­sis do not always give a favourable result for pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty. “I would say I’m not a con­ser­va­tion prac­ti­tion­er, my role is to pro­vide evi­dence and data so that peo­ple can make their own deci­sion.” But he says this should not pre­vent us from valu­ing nat­ur­al resources. “In my opin­ion, we should not shy away from valu­ing nature because it offers a more tan­gi­ble argu­ment than ethics or moral.” 

Find out more about TESSA


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