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Just 5% of the world’s top 500 companies have biodiversity targets. Here’s how 3 very different industries could go nature-positive

Excessive use of the world’s resources means it is more urgent than ever that industry becomes nature-positive.

Excessive use of the world’s resources means it is more urgent than ever that industry becomes nature-positive. Image: Unsplash/Sergei A

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Excessive use of the world’s resources means it is more urgent than ever that industry becomes nature-positive.
  • The World Economic Forum’s new Nature-Positive report series highlights what chemical producers, the household and personal care sector, and cement and concrete companies can all be doing to help reverse nature loss by 2030.
  • Water usage, circular business models and innovation around materials and processes will all be vital.

We only have one Earth, but we need 1.75 Earths to fuel our relentless – and reckless – appetite for ecological resources.

This fact is pointed out in all three of the World Economic Forum’s new Nature-Positive report series. It’s a figure that comes from the Global Footprint Network, which not only tracks national resource use, but also allows people to calculate their own ecological footprint.

The Forum reports focus on sectors rather than countries or individuals, looking at what chemical producers, the household and personal care sector, and cement and concrete companies can all be doing to help reverse nature loss by 2030.

“Most of the world’s top 500 companies have a climate target – but just 5% have one for biodiversity,” the reports all say. “Given how dependent the global economy is on nature, the private sector urgently needs to help halt and reverse nature loss this decade.”

How the chemical sector can reverse nature loss

The chemical industry provides materials for 95% of all manufactured goods worldwide, from life-saving drugs to fertilizers and fashion items, the Forum’s Nature Positive: Role of the Chemical Sector report says. This pervasiveness means that any progress the chemical sector makes on sustainability will also help the industries it serves cut the carbon and ecological impacts along their supply chains.

At the same time, the chemical sector must prioritize engaging its suppliers, retailers and customers on nature loss, given how much of its impact occurs upstream (in the production of raw materials) and downstream (when buyers use its products), the report adds.

Figure illustrating the five priority actions for the chemical sector.
How the chemical sector can reduce its impact on the natural world. Image: World Economic Forum

The report makes five overarching recommendations for the industry, including increasing its use of renewable energy, improving its water stewardship and adopting circular business models, such as by using biodegradable materials and raising their recycling capacity.

Water can be managed better by installing new systems to maximize water recovery at treatment plants or to save water altogether. Water audits can also help companies see areas where they need to improve.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The report cites Dow’s work with an industrial water distributor in Catalonia to implement a municipal wastewater reclamation programme that has freed up water for the Ebro River Basin. It also mentions BASF and Henkel’s joint work to replace fossil-based feedstocks with renewable raw materials.

Actions such as this will not only help preserve biodiversity, but could unlock more than $320 billion in annual business opportunities by 2030 for companies operating across the chemical sector’s value chain, the Forum says.

A nature-positive household and personal care sector

The cosmetics industry alone generates around 120 billion units of packaging every year, and palm oil – a common ingredient in cosmetics and detergents – was responsible for 7% of global deforestation in 2000-18, the Forum’s Nature Positive: Role of the Household and Personal Care Products Sector report says.

The household and personal care sector’s impact on land and water resources are facing increasing levels of scrutiny, particularly around the plastic waste crisis. Companies are acknowledging that they can do better, with non-profit association the Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT) helping push forward initiatives on ethical sourcing and protecting biodiversity.

Figure illustrating the financial opportunities for the household and personal care products sector, by 2030.
The household and personal care sector could unlock $62 billion in annual cost savings and revenue by embracing more nature-friendly business models. Image: World Economic Forum

Supporting nature conservation and restoration is one of the Forum’s five recommendations for the sector. These include joining coalitions such as 1t.org, which aims to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030, and getting involved with clean-up initiatives for rivers and oceans.

Given that nearly everyone in the world uses household and personal care products, changing consumer behaviour will also have a massive impact. This can include designing reusable and refillable packaging, and providing eco metrics to help consumers make buying choices.

The sector could unlock $62 billion in annual cost savings and revenue by embracing more nature-friendly business models, the Forum says.

Have you read?

A cleaner cement and concrete sector

Concrete is the most-used construction material in the world, and cement is one of its key ingredients. But getting the materials to produce cement and concrete are putting increased pressure on our planet and natural resources, says the Forum’s Nature Positive: Role of the Cement and Concrete Sector report.

The industry is responsible for 9% of worldwide industrial water withdrawals and 7-8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Given that demand for concrete is only likely to expand as the number of people living in cities increases, something needs to be done urgently to clean up concrete and cement production.

Figure illustrating the household and personal care products sector in numbers.
The cement and concrete sector has major opportunities to reduce its water use and carbon footprint. Image: World Economic Forum

The five priority action areas the Forum sets out are:

  • Improve water stewardship across the value chain.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other airborne emissions.
  • Continue and strengthen reclamation, rehabilitation and biodiversity management.
  • Expand circularity across the value chain.
  • Accelerate innovation to support the nature-positive transition.

On water usage, closed-loop recycling systems and replacing freshwater with non-freshwater such as rainwater are two ways to make a difference. Pledges are being made, with Holcim promising to fit out all of its sites with water-recycling systems by 2030.

Changes such as these need to become widespread to reduce water stress in regions where cement and concrete companies operate.

On the innovation front, new mixtures and materials need to be the focus, as has been pointed out at the Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings 2023.

Hard-to-abate industries can’t use the levers that we normally think about when we’re talking about decarbonization,” Annie Hills, Senior Adviser on Innovation to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the US Department of State, pointed out in one session. “So what we need to see is innovation.”

Rethinking clinker needs to be high on the list for the cement and concrete sector. Clinker is a mix of limestone and minerals that the industry relies on, but which requires intensive heating that creates 60-65% of the CO2 emissions in cement manufacturing.

Limestone calcined clay is a starting point. It can be produced at 800°C – around half of the 1,500°C needed to make clinker.

Companies are also looking at electrifying kilns instead of powering them with fossil fuels.

“The VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, in cooperation with corporate partners, has developed a fully electrically heated rotary kiln, which makes cement production close to carbon neutral when powered with low-emissions electricity and also incorporates carbon capture technology,” the Forum report says.

All of this could unlock $40 billion in annual business opportunities for the cement and concrete industry, the Forum calculates. Far more importantly, it could also help bring humanity closer to using just one Earth’s worth of resources – or even less.

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Forum InstitutionalNature and BiodiversitySustainable Development
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