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New legislation sparks private sector investment opportunity in environmental monitoring

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 4, 2024
New legislation means the state of nature and the environment is something that many companies are going to have to start taking a lot more seriously. Two organizations that are working on services to monitor nature’s health including the UK’s Ordnance Survey and the Netherlands’ Land Life.

Environmental protection, renewable, sustainable energy sources. Plant growing in the bulb concept © Proxima Studio - Shutterstock
(© Proxima Studio - Shutterstock)

The important role the private sector plays in helping to support nature conservation and restoration cannot be underestimated. 

That is why organizations, such as Ordnance Survey (OS), the UK’s national mapping service, are finding ways to encourage its involvement.

OS, for instance, is currently using a 15 square kilometer site at Thorne and Hatfield Moors in the English county of South Yorkshire as a test case to develop a new system that can support companies’ carbon offsetting activities. It will do so using a detailed peat map of the site to act as a baseline for the long-term monitoring of peatland health.

This baseline has been developed for Natural England, a government body that owns the Moors, using geospatial, aerial, satellite-based Earth observation, field and OS’s own mapping data. 

The data includes information on different types of vegetation and their health as well as local water table levels. It will be used to analyze and monitor the Moor site’s condition and produce a detailed carbon model. 

This monitoring will be undertaken by the OS VeriEarth monitoring and verification service, which is expected to formally launch next year. Data will be presented to potential customers using a dashboard. 

Independently assessing peatland health

The first target customer group for the service will be investors interested in making a long-term investment and keen to prove its ecological benefits. The service will also enable them to offset their carbon usage. 

The second target group is landowners, such as Natural England, which owns Thorne and Hatfield Moors. Its role as a government body is to manage and conserve the country’s natural environment. 

The OS VeriEarth service is intended to help such landowners demonstrate that their sometimes-costly interventions are having a positive effect and to encourage third party financing if required. As Mark Tabor, OS’s Principal Consultant, explains:

There’s a lot of greenwashing that goes on in finance, so this monitoring, verification and reporting service is meant to provide an independent assessment of peat health and help determine carbon offsets. But the service will need to operate over a significant period of time – it can take 30 years to see the benefits of regeneration.

The aim is to roll the service out both nationally and internationally, with other possible use cases including mangroves, forests and saltmarshes. Peatland is considered a good starting point though due to its importance in carbon capture terms

Some 12% of the entire UK consists of peatland. But much of it is now degraded after having been drained for agriculture, livestock grazing and forestry and suffering from the effects of global warming.

The project will provide a detailed map of the peat moors to help monitor their health and facilitate their regeneration under the Peatland Code. This was developed by Professor Fred Worrall, a peatlands expert at the University of Durham. It works out each site’s potential in terms of sequestering carbon. Tabor explains:

You can determine the carbon offset at that point. But you need to feed in updated information over the years to determine if peatland health is improving or declining, and based on the price of carbon offsets, which goes up and down, you can determine the financial offset on an annual basis. We’re about to do a test submission to the Verra standard to ensure the Peatland Code is acceptable to it, and we’ll be one of the first to do so.

Preparing for biodiversity credit markets

A second organization keen to involve the private sector in sponsoring its work is Netherlands-based Land Life, which specializes in reforesting degraded land around the world. It has sites in, amongst other places, Colorado, Spain, Portugal and Australia. Josephine Haas, the firm’s Medior Resilience Engineer, explains:

We work with organizations that want to have a positive impact on nature, which they can do through funding our projects. So, we do carbon projections of our planting, and they get the right to claim carbon credits in future. But following the adoption of things like the Global Biodiversity Framework at COP26, we’ve seen way more interest in measuring biodiversity too. So, we see an opportunity there as monitoring biodiversity is way more complex than measuring plant growth. 

Customers are still waiting as it’s not entirely clear yet what’s happening with environmental measurements, biodiversity impact reporting and biodiversity credit markets. But as soon as it’s clearer, market growth is expected to surge.

The World Economic Forum estimates that demand for voluntary biodiversity credits will be worth $2bn by 2030, increasing in value to $69bn by 2050. In anticipation, Land Life decided to roll out an initial pilot project in Spain using NatureMetrics’ eDNA cloud-based system to monitor biodiversity at one of its degraded sites in Aragon, northeastern Spain. Haas personally undertook the field work in December 2022, which involved taking soil samples to provide a baseline. She explains:

We had the soil samples analyzed for biodiversity through metrics, such as fungi levels, and compared them with samples from mature, old-growth forest, where soil biodiversity is way more complex. The idea was to better understand what impact we could expect to see and how communities might change over time. So, the pilot helped us understand the technology’s potential in tracking that change.

Using technology to scale

Baselining is now also taking place at other Spanish sites, with the ultimate aim of creating a service for customers that can measure both carbon capture and biodiversity levels. As Haas says:

Technology helps us scale our biodiversity measurements so they’re more economically feasible as we don’t need internal expertise and it’s less time-consuming. With eDNA, we take a soil sample, which anyone can do, and send it to NatureMetrics for analysis, so we don’t need a soil expert on site to look at it through a microscope. 

Data from things like bioacoustics, satellite imagery and camera traps can all be fed into the system and an AI algorithm makes analysis more accurate. With more traditional surveys, having experts doing transactions in the field took time and was hard to scale. So, for us, it’s super-cool to see how we can combine these technologies to get a more holistic approach to biodiversity. It helps us prove we’re making a positive contribution.

She adds that, although:

It’s important to understand the limitations of technology, it looks very promising. It potentially means we could even reanalyze data in future for those DNA sequences that aren’t attached to a certain species yet. 

But Haas also says it is important to understand that there can never be a no one-size-fits-all with biodiversity:

In the new space of biodiversity monitoring, a lot of people a looking for a single metric to simplify things as much as possible and make it easier for customers to understand. But different biomes require different approaches, so landscape is very important.

My take

As legislation, such as the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, progressively starts to take hold, we will undoubtedly see many more carbon and biodiversity monitoring services coming to market to try to prove that nature-friendly activities are having the promised impact. The hope is that such services won’t just end up being used as an excuse for companies to dodge their environmental responsibilities as has been too often case with carbon offsetting initiatives to date.

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