Nature and Biodiversity

How can the building materials sector tackle biodiversity loss?

habitat biodiversity loss building materials climate change

Providing unique spots for biodiversity. Image: Freepik.

Carolyn Jewell
Senior Manager Biodiversity & Natural Resources, Heidelberg Materials
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  • Climate change and biodiversity loss are significant threats to our planet.
  • As the global population increases so does the demand for natural resources.
  • Here's how the building materials sector can help tackle biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity is rapidly catching up with climate change on the global policy agenda, and not a moment too soon. The world has already seen an average 69% drop in mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations since 1970, according to a WWF Living Planet Report 2022. This loss not only creates a significant threat to society, but also the economy and financial systems, as more than half of the world’s GDP – over $44 trillion a year – relies on services that are provided by nature.

As biodiversity decreases, global population continues to grow, with a predicted population of 9.7 billion by 2050 and this is associated with an increasing demand for natural resources needed for food, clothing, transport, infrastructure, and housing. It is crucial to create a consumption system within the planetary boundaries to address climate change, biodiversity loss and to ensure a sustainable future.

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Concrete is a vital ingredient in addressing population growth. It enables sustainable infrastructure, buildings that can withstand extreme weather conditions, bridges that connect us and renewable energy by means of wind and waterpower.

However, the production of concrete and its main elements exerts direct pressures on biodiversity and thus is shaping its global state. Therefore, making strong biodiversity commitments is essential to becoming nature-positive.

Finding solutions to biodiversity loss

Jane Goodall, one of the world’s most well-known scientists and a major influencer on preserving nature, underlines the value the extractive sector can provide to biodiversity. Discussing her latest book, Seeds of Hope, she says well managed quarries are giving her hope that the fight for nature conservation can still be won. But how?

When operating quarries in varied landscapes across the world, it is vital to understand the impacts on biodiversity at a local level in and around quarries. It is key to apply the mitigation hierarchy - i.e., avoid, reduce, restore, compensate – with the clear objective of no net loss of biodiversity.

Longstanding targets pre-, during, and post-extraction help to understand where the sensitive sites are located with respect to high biodiversity value areas. Tools such as environmental impact assessments, biodiversity management plans and reclamation plans support target achievement and responsible resource management.

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Quarries as hotspots for biodiversity

Quarries can provide magnificent and unique spots for biodiversity during and especially after extraction when new habitats can be sculptured during the reclamation phase, as an increasing number of scientific studies has shown.

Most surprisingly, active quarries also offer species opportunities through temporary habitats. These include for example, ponds for amphibians, or pioneer habitats which support species that depend on a mosaic of bare ground and vegetation. Near-threatened species as listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were found in Indian limestone quarries.

Schematic representation of zones within a quarry that can support a rich variety of biodiversity, in particular during and after extraction: 1. Natural habitats surrounding the site which may or may not be within the quarry footprint (top left); 2. Areas within the active quarry zone that are left for a short period or season can quickly become important habitat for pioneer species (centre); 3. Temporary habitats can form due to the surface undulation created by the active operations (top - bottom of open face). 4. Progressive reclamation enables the creation of new habitats, for example wetlands and species rich meadows (bottom). Designed by Francoise Laruelle for Heidelberg Materials.
Schematic representation of zones within a quarry that can support a rich variety of biodiversity, in particular during and after extraction: 1. Natural habitats surrounding the site which may or may not be within the quarry footprint (top left); 2. Areas within the active quarry zone that are left for a short period or season can quickly become important habitat for pioneer species (centre); 3. Temporary habitats can form due to the surface undulation created by the active operations (top - bottom of open face). 4. Progressive reclamation enables the creation of new habitats, for example wetlands and species rich meadows (bottom). Designed by Francoise Laruelle for Heidelberg Materials.

Monitoring studies have found an incredible 650 species in a high-altitude limestone quarry in Italy, and nearly 1,000 species were identified in a sand and gravel site in the Czech Republic. At Indian quarries, waterbodies formed through the extractive process were found to support over 110 bird species. These even included endemic and near-threatened bird species as defined by the IUCN. Interestingly, early habitat types that colonise the bare quarry substrate can support more IUCN red-listed species than the later successional stages – grassland and woodland.

Quarries cannot only protect biodiversity, but they can contribute to large-scale restoration of biodiversity by creating areas that have been lost in the wider landscape. For example, a sand and gravel extraction site in the United Kingdom is progressively converting intensively used agricultural landscape into the largest man-made reedbed.

It is crucial to compare the ecological value of a site before and after extraction based on existing net impact methodologies that are also supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). These assessments enable a company to get a deeper understanding of its direct impact.

Extracting natural resources and managing biodiversity thus can go hand in hand. However, it is still essential to raise and enhance the knowledge on this topic. This is where initiatives like Heidelberg Materials' Quarry Life Award, a globally recognised nature-based competition, step in. The company also has a long-standing collaboration with BirdLife International, an example of valuable biodiversity partnerships that can benefit both businesses and NGOs.

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How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

Nature-positive policies

At a time of great policy dynamism, there is immense potential for businesses to initiate, support and help deliver new targets around the topic of biodiversity. The restoration of habitats at quarries is just one example which can greatly add to the European nature restoration law targets, as well as the UN decade on ecosystem restoration, and contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation.

However, the policy environments businesses work in need to be able to facilitate this. As businesses move towards being nature positive they can face legislative barriers when trying to include nature in their operations and decision-making processes. But this also provides an opportunity to go the extra mile in finding solutions. The recently released Extractive Sector Species Protection Code of Conduct is one such example of looking for positive outcomes for nature while working in harmony with the law (in this case, the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directive).

The business and biodiversity arena has never been so fast moving, and while it is fantastic to see such a high interest and engagement from the private sector, it is clear that companies starting out on their biodiversity journey need clear direction. Associated with high expectations is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022, which aims to determine the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The inclusion of an action for business is encouraging, as is the developing Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and Science Based Targets Network (SBTN).

However, no matter what the initiative, developing methodologies and metrics must be data-driven and measurable, underpinned by science, and have explicit outcomes – based on the existing mitigation hierarchy. It will also be essential to link with the financial system to shift financial flows towards nature-positive outcomes. This requires an early alignment of reporting standards to quantify biodiversity impacts without competitive disadvantages.

The building materials sector has gained great experience over the past decade in balancing the delicate relationship between nature and the extraction of natural resources to produce essential materials to build a sustainable future for society. It can provide inspiration and best practice to sectors and businesses as we all collectively work towards halting and reversing biodiversity loss.

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