global perspectives

Building the base for nature positive across the built environment

19 March 2024 / WORDS BY Guy Williams and Sophie St John

When it comes to nature risk and opportunity, there’s a fallacy we sometimes see amongst corporates that it’s a new space, impossibly complex, and must be completely understood before it can be addressed. Those who put nature in the ‘too hard’ basket are failing to recognise the opportunities it presents, and the scale of relevant work and data they have often already accumulated. Few companies would be approaching nature from a standing start if they were to start planning more deliberately and explicitly for it today. The reality is we already know an awful lot about nature, what is needed and what impacts we are having – and this is particularly true in the built environment sector.

The built environment, and associated infrastructure sector, is very well placed to pursue ambitious nature targets.

To build anything new presents an obvious, direct interaction with the natural environment. That means this sector already deals with nature on a daily basis in a measurable way – which creates a clear building block for nature strategy. Extensive environmental impact assessments, approvals, and biodiversity monitoring, for example, has created a goldmine of often untapped data that has the potential to fast-track science-based targets for nature, and is now being used by some sectoral participants to understand their site-based nature-related risks and opportunities. The industry also has a new track record of implementing ambitious climate targets – proving that doing the same for nature is certainly possible. Indeed, many building rating schemes already include goals and targets for site-based nature values.

And while direct nature impact is clear with the built environment sector, work has also been done to address indirect impacts, opportunities and risks, such as within materials supply chains. With increasing demand for transparent, sustainable and ethically sources building materials, multiple industry bodies and schemes are already in place to regulate and certify the supply of these materials. Some schemes also include end-of-life considerations of a product. An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), for example, is an independently verified and registered document that includes details of a product’s life cycle and environmental impact. The datasets involved in an EPD include resource consumption of energy, water and renewable resources, and emissions to air, water and soil. While EPDs and similar schemes aren’t yet complete and widespread, and present some of their own challenges in implementation, they also present strong evidence that the industry is much further along with considering nature than many are led to believe.

This is not to say that the industry does not have a long way to go to reach nature positive status, that is, becoming a greater contributor to nature repair than to nature damage and degradation. Looking at the isolated data on the impact of the built environment on nature can paint a bleak picture. The built environment contributes to all direct drivers of biodiversity loss. It is responsible for 79% of all greenhouse gas emissions, accounts for 88% of all adaptation costs, consumes almost half of all non-renewable resources, and generates 40% of global waste streams, not to mention the inevitable impact of development-associated land clearing on the alarming rate of extinctions and spread of invasive species across the globe. And with 68% of the world’s population projected to be living in urban areas by 2050, the size of the built environment is expected to double, increasing the challenges of supply and affordability for a growing population.

In recognition of these impacts a growing number of laws and regulations are being introduced in jurisdictions around the world to address the twin crises of climate change and nature loss, and to meet global targets. Global decision makers are taking notice, as demonstrated by the inaugural UN Environment Program’s Buildings and Climate Global Forum taking place last week. This month the EU passed the Nature Restoration law which sets a target for the EU to restore at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. Earlier this year, England introduced a new biodiversity scheme, forcing any new developments to prove a 10% net positive result on nature, in order to proceed. While this is essentially an offsetting scheme, the intent is also to force development proponents to carefully consider their site and its impact on nature in a way they haven’t needed to in the past.

Whilst the built environment impacts nature, it also offers a unique opportunity to leverage the immense opportunities provided by it. The built environment depends on nature for materials, and for asset protection from climate. Nature can be harnessed for climate resilience to reduce flooding of coastal communities and reduce urban heat island effects, and to improve the health and wellbeing and social connectedness  by providing  biodiverse spaces in which to live, work and play.

The roadblocks once presented by the lack of global consistency in measurement of nature-related impact and metrics are also starting to lift. In December 2023, the TNFD released a discussion paper on proposed sector disclosure metrics which include sector-specific metrics for infrastructure and real estate, and in the coming months further sector guidance will provide even greater clarity for how the built environment actors can engage with this whole-of economy nature risk and opportunity framework. The TNFD provides guidance on what data to collect at sites and in supply chains and, reduces the list of possible materials to be considered by identifying those that are ‘high risk’. Similarly, at COP28 in December last year, the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) announced plans to develop science-based targets for nature that include cities for the first time. This guidance will provide further globally consistent guidance for the built environment.

The emergence of globally consistent standards, databases and mapping tools, and the plethora of existing data that built environment players already hold mean that participants in the sector can get started on nature today by:

  • Undertaking a high-level stocktake of nature exposure by reviewing existing nature-related data from sites and supply chains, and identifying current actions, projects or initiatives that are going well and could be expanded;
  • Building on work already underway by reviewing and consolidating existing site-based data to provide a portfolio-wide picture of existing nature-related impacts, dependencies, risks and opportunities in direction operations;
  • Uncovering hidden risks by analysing ‘high risk materials’ in the supply chain against associated spend data to identify priority focus areas in the supply chain; and
  • Charting a course to nature positive by reviewing existing design guidelines and standards against leading-practice nature-based design and circular economy principles related to design, material selection and deconstruction and decommissioning components of the value chain.

Once the built environment has got a grasp on a nature baseline and risks and opportunities, we can start imagining what the future could look like. The built environment has an enormous role to play for people and planet, and it’s important we take time to reflect on what this could be. It’s unlikely that human beings will cease making changes to the environments they inhabit and spend time in, but it does not automatically follow that those impacts should always be negative or destructive. Making this shift starts, however, with a mindset change. The rush of new rules, frameworks, requirements and initiatives relating to nature cannot be regarded as just another reporting and disclosure obligation. Instead, they represent an opportunity to begin directing the same human ingenuity that has created the built environments we currently share to creating a nature positive built environment that contributes over time to the wellbeing of people and the planet.


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