Delegates from big business and government gathering for one of the world’s largest environmental conferences have pledged to meet a global target of protecting 17 per cent of the world’s land and 10 per cent of oceans by 2020.

Representatives of more than 100 companies, including Shell, BHP Billiton and BP, were among 6,000 delegates at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney – a global forum held once a decade to survey the condition and management of the world’s protected areas.

Some of the world’s largest mammals are in danger of extinction from poaching and loss of habitat, a trend that also affects some countries’ prosperity.

Destruction of habitat has already led to the extinction of the world’s largest earwig and a Malaysian mollusc, and threatened the survival of the Pacific bluefin tuna and Chinese puffer fish. Climate change is another huge challenge.

The involvement of so many companies contrasted with the last IUCN conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2003 when only a handful were present.

Anthony Hodge, president of the International Council on Mining and Metals, which represents leading mining companies, said: “There has been a big cultural shift. Ten years ago companies were hesitant to come to the conference, but now there is a much more constructive and open dialogue.”

Mr Hodge said awareness was growing within the industry that collaboration with communities was key to project success, pointing to three projects in Latin America worth $15-$20bn that are on hold because of local disagreements. The ICMM has made a commitment not to mine in national heritage protected areas.

A presentation from Google illustrated how the technology company had joined not-for-profit companies Sky Truth and Oceana to build a satellite tracking tool to monitor illegal fishing. Yemen LNG demonstrated how it had spent $45m erecting “silt curtains” to protect reefs, transplanting corals and creating a marine reserve.

Jonny Hughes, Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive, said there were signs of a “quiet revolution” in the corporate world over environmental issues.

“Companies are increasingly getting on board with conservation groups to try and prevent the ‘natural capital’ bubble bursting,” he said.

Natural capital is the stock of natural ecosystems that produce a flow of valuable goods or services. Some conservationists want to put an economic value on it as a way to encourage investment in environmental programmes and activities.

Kering, the French luxury group that owns the Gucci and Puma brands, published the world’s first environmental profit and loss account in 2011. By helping the company identify where environmental risks were highest, managers could identify savings on resource use and better manage supply chain risks, the company told conference delegates.

Mr Hughes says attracting investment into conservation efforts is easier when the costs and benefits to companies are clearly outlined. He cites the Newfoundland fishery, which closed during the 1990s due to overfishing, costing 40,000 jobs, as an example of the dangers of exploitation.

However, environmentalists warn of the danger of companies using environmental projects to protect themselves against criticism for harmful activities.

François Simard, deputy director of IUCN, said concerns remained about such “greenwashing”, the reason he said the IUCN did not accept money from corporate partners.

A spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund said there was a debate about allowing oil and gas into protected areas and that it was important that all companies be held accountable for their actions.

“There are many areas that should always be no-go,” he said. “But it is also important that all parties participate in this debate. So they do have a legitimate role to play at the congress.”

One of the key challenges outlined by the IUCN was the need to manage properly the protected areas signed up to by government. It estimated that this would cost $57bn a year.

A report by Credit Suisse, McKinsey and WWF estimated that private investors could supply as much as $200bn-$300bn of investment capital a year if collaboration between conservation groups, governments and businesses could deliver the right financial products.

“There is significant unmet demand for the funding of conservation programmes to preserve ecosystems at a global scale,” said Mark Burrows of Credit Suisse.

The Sydney promise: key IUCN pledges

● Protect at least 17% of the world’s land and 10% of oceans by 2020. (Currently 15.4% of land and 3.4% of oceans are designated protected areas)

● Brazil commits to protect 5% of its marine waters and to consolidate 60m hectares of protected areas in the Amazon region by 2020

● China commits to increase its protected areas by at least 20% by 2020

● Elion Foundation and UN create a public-private partnership to plant 1.3bn trees along the historic Silk Road trade route

● Russia to create 27 federal protected areas and expand 12 existing ones

● Quebec in Canada to protect 600,000 square km from industrial activity to conserve biodiversity

Source: IUCN World Parks Congress

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