OPINION: A recent survey of chief sustainability officers hailed biodiversity as “the next big issue”.
Sixty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the biodiversity crisis is edging onto the commercial radar, and 2023 is proving to be the year biodiversity concerns flip to mainstream. There is growing recognition that the crisis is analogous to climate change in its urgency, scale, impact, and irreversibility.
Eight minutes’ drive west of Sydney’s Manly beach, hiding in cool pools of tumbling water, you will find a fish that climbs waterfalls, Galaxias brevipinnis.?It’s an ancient relic from the Gondwanan era, a direct link to Sydney’s pre-colonial wilderness.
Galaxias brevipinnis hunts at night, and in our last count by torchlight in 2021, we could find only nine surviving adults present in a single creek line – the last surviving population in metropolitan Sydney. I had returned to retrace my footsteps of over a decade ago, revisiting my original ecological report, and found that all but one of the creeks that had flowed freely through the site had disappeared. Even in the middle of the La Nina deluges, we could find no trace of them.
The fact Galaxias brevipinnis survives at all is partly due to a single neighbouring site which is returning passively filtered rainwater in life-giving volumes to the habitat. Thanks to that intact creek line, two years later and following multiple breeding seasons, the 2023 population has rebounded.
Why one little fish tells a bigger story of how to reverse a global trend
Galaxias brevipinnis?is what we could call a “bioindicator species”. Its preference for cool, healthy waters means there is shading overhead by tall bloodwoods, oxygenated water, no pollution, and abundant prey such as damselfly nymphs. They are a bellwether of the overall health and biodiversity of the local catchment. The decline of species like Christmas beetles, fireflies and bogong moths in Australia speaks of the broader global biodiversity decline.
This little fish is also emblematic of a broader story within our cities – the decline of biodiversity and nature’s ability to bounce back when given a chance. It shows how a global trend manifests at local scales, and how simple adjustments can reverse a trend.
The survival of Sydney’s population of Galaxias brevipinnisis largely dependent on what happens in neighbouring developments and developments far removed from it. This is true for all biodiversity, so we need to expand our focus beyond biodiversity risks on-site.
An appreciation of embodied impacts on nature is key to managing biodiversity risk
It’s simple to begin fixing this, but in the context of a biodiversity crisis, we are surprisingly adept at largely ignoring nature in ”sustainable design” and green building specifications. While we also celebrate these green buildings, perhaps we should stop to think whether they are achieving true sustainability.
Nature can and should be included in green building design briefs. To fully address biodiversity risks and opportunities, we can consider nature beyond project sites, and across supply chains.
Property funds are hiring biodiversity managers, but what’s next?
With broad investor support, the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures asked signatories to disclose biodiversity risks by the end of 2022. By early 2023 early adopter Australian property funds had hired biodiversity managers, elevating biodiversity to a core competency of sustainability and ESG.
Asset owners are measuring baseline biodiversity risk across their portfolios, echoing the practices of early-stage carbon reporting.
There is another similarity – just as early carbon reporting largely considered on-site emissions in the design of our buildings, our attention is focused on on-site biodiversity, with off-site biodiversity risks and supply chain risks largely out of scope.
There’s also a bigger story than reporting and disclosure – because the property sector holds the keys to mitigating the biodiversity crisis.
In the delivery of real assets such as infrastructure and buildings, the property industry controls almost all the key processes causing global biodiversity loss: urbanisation, deforestation, habitat loss and fragmentation, night-sky brightness, pollution, and introduction of exotic species.
Development projects lock in biodiversity impacts – positive or negative – for decades to come.
Where nature is considered in design, metrics typically include species richness, or green area.
However, in cities most of the biodiversity impacts associated with a green building will occur off site, in neighbouring areas, and across the supply chains.
There’s an opportunity here to learn from our experience in addressing the climate change crisis on multiple fronts, by quickly moving to consider nature in design and performance on-site and off-site.
Designing for nature will help mitigate the biodiversity crisis
Industrial decarbonisation went first to data, then to action. We can fast forward this process. Instead, we can:
- expand biodiversity risks to include embodied biodiversity risks along the supply chain – moving towards a concept of “embodied nature”
- move beyond disclosure of biodiversity risks to consider nature in design and performance by expanding all sustainability project briefs to include consideration of nature, or deploy biodiversity design guidelines across building portfolios
- Consider off-site impacts by looking at local ecology, for example, capturing, absorbing and filtering water where it lands, manages biodiversity risks, literally downstream. This might have avoided mass die offs of the weedy sea dragon in the Sydney harbour after recent floods
- move beyond increasing green space and species richness with biodiversity to consider how habitat area can be expanded without trading off building footprint, and the provision of favourable environmental conditions for nature
- Adjust weightings in our standards and rating systems to reflect the biodiversity crisis
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The buildings and infrastructure we create today have an ability to improve biodiversity outcomes for the next century and beyond.
Let’s fast forward to consider biodiversity in design and “embodied nature”. In doing so we’ll embrace what the pandemic revealed – a very human affinity for nature and green space in the design of our cities. We will also be doing our part to protect the wildlife neighbours who also call the land, the air and the waterways of our cities home.