UN maps all land to help businesses halt habitat and biodiversity destruction

Scientists have mapped the entirety of the planet's terrestrial habitat, creating a resource that will help businesses and investors measure and minimize their impacts on natural resources and biodiversity.

Humans use around 72% of the world’s ice-free land surface

Humans use around 72% of the world’s ice-free land surface

The map, which claims to be the first of its kind, was published in the journal Biological Conservation late last week following extensive research from scientists at the UN’s Environment Programme arm (UNEP). Before its publication, such in-depth data was only available for areas classed as ‘protected’ and ‘key for biodiversity, which are accountable for just 15.1% and 8.8% of land respectively.

It maps whether each square kilometre of land is classified as ‘natural’ or ‘modified’ – natural habitats being those which have not been created by humans or significantly altered by development activity. As such, users can identify where existing projects can be expanded, or new ones began, with the smallest impact on habitats possible.

According to the map, 37% of the world’s global terrestrial area is natural, and a further 25% is potentially natural. 22% of the land is likely modified and a further 17% potentially modified.

Businesses should use the map in their early screening processes to play their role in averting Earth’s sixth mass extinction, particularly if they operate in high-impact sectors like agriculture, extractives, forestry or energy, the map’s creators are urging.

Investors seeking to improve the sustainability of their portfolios could also use the map to analyse the nature impact of their existing holdings and their supply chains, or to screen businesses’ operational footprint before they choose to invest in the first instance.

The lead author of the paper explaining the map, Joe Gosling, said it will “fill in significant gaps in current data, providing a holistic view of land’s biodiversity value”.

“Building this data into decision-making will empower businesses and investors to better understand and reduce their impacts on nature,” Gosling said.

Nature-related risks

The launch of the map came in the same month that the UNEP published new research into the correlation between habitat destruction, biodiversity use and novel viruses such as Covid-19.

The paper warns that corporate operations which destroy habitats bring people into closer contact with wildlife – both In terms of employees going into habitats to complete projects, and of animals making their way into urban and suburban communities once their habitats have been degraded. As such, there is greater opportunity for novel viruses to cross the species barrier.

Illegal trade involving species considered to have high disease risk is also a contributing factor, the paper warns, building on previous research which concluded that 75% of emerging infectious diseases originated in wildlife.

As nations develop their plans for dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic, Ministers are, therefore, facing calls to better factor nature protection into their financial accounting.

The UK Government has, along with the Swiss Government, signed up to spearhead the development of a framework which will help corporates measure, disclose and minimise their nature-related financial risks. Called the Task Force for Nature-Related Financial Disclosures, the initiative is being supported by 10 major banks as well as the UN, WWF and Global Canopy. According to the World Economic Forum, around $44trn – more than half of global GDP – will be at risk from nature destruction by the end of the century.

Nonetheless, the UK Treasury has only ring-fenced £40m of the £160bn it plans to spend on the economic recovery specifically for nature-related projects to date. Charities have called for £315m to be invested in nature restoration projects as a first step.

Sarah George



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