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COP15 - why does it matter to construction?

Biodiversity By Kevin McGee, Associate Director, Geoenvironmental – 05 December 2022

Front elevation of the UN building in Geneva


Kevin smiling in a white shirt and suit jacket

Kevin McGee

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COP15 (The UN’s Biodiversity Conference) will commence on 7 December. Why does it matter to construction?

For starters, biodiversity matters to all of us. A damaged ecosystem negatively affects all species of flora and fauna, and that very much includes Homo Sapiens. Global biodiversity has already declined to about 75% of what the UN considers ‘intact’, significantly below the UN’s target of 90%. For reference, a drop below 90%, and the scientific consensus is that global biodiversity risks becoming irreparable.

The hard reality is that the UK has led the world on biodiversity destruction and is now one of the most de-natured countries on the planet, with an ‘intact’ biodiversity score of only around 50%. Intensive agriculture and fishing, land clearance and burning for hunting and shooting, alongside uncontrolled mineral extraction, are some of the primary factors in the UK's biodiversity destruction. But whilst we have the capacity for great destruction, we also have the capacity for good.

COP15’s targets (subject to ratification in Montreal - and avoiding global geopolitics for now) will likely include a mandate that UN member countries will enact a plan to reverse biodiversity losses and extinctions by 2030 with ‘net gains’ of at least 5% with habitat connectivity being a critical component. By 2050, the ‘net gain’ target is expected to be raised to 15%. In addition, corporate biodiversity audits, action plans and strategies will likely become normal, and larger companies may indeed be faced with local legislation.

How much does all this impact construction? Going beyond the likely requirements for improved corporate governance in terms of biodiversity impacts, the sector needs land, and quite often lots of it. Masterplan or infrastructure-type developments with large land takes will be significantly impacted by the requirements to mitigate against biodiversity loss and provide net gains, and legislation and guidance are being raced through to align with COP15 across numerous UN member states. In England, we will soon be dealing with a mandatory minimum 10% net gain via the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) but some local authorities are already looking at the feasibility of 20%. In the EU, a new Nature Restoration Directive is proposed which contains binding targets for member states and includes requirements to increase urban ‘green’ infrastructure and ensure supply chains are not contributing to global biodiversity loss.

So, what do we have to do? Assessing potential biodiversity loss during development is just the start. Creating and incorporating nature-based solutions in development that are affordable, optimise biodiversity gains, and work in harmony with scheme proposals is key to the delivery of a successful ‘net gain’ of biodiversity that works for developers, nature, and end-users alike. Achieving this requires good planning and forward-thinking, along with a coordinated and multi-disciplinary approach. This is essential to success, and as designers in the built environment, it is a challenge that we look forward to embracing for the benefit of all.

For many, COP15 might be flying a bit under the radar, but the implications for developers and designers alike may well turn out to be significant, and it could just be the most important UN Conference you haven’t heard of.