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When do we breach our planetary boundary for biodiversity each year?

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimates that 150-200 species become extinct each day. That's around 64,000 species a year. The Planetary Boundaries Framework proposed that a safe threshold for biodiversity is "limiting extinction" to 10 species per million per year. That’s 87 species a year, given current estimates that there are 8.7million species on planet Earth.

If we think about a safe planetary boundary for biodiversity in terms of a calendar, by 12.30 pm on January 1st we would have crossed the threshold for the number of species becoming extinct.

What can we do improve the situation and, specifically, what can businesses do?

We reviewed the targets being set against the nine Planetary Boundaries by 220 of the world’s largest companies. The study is part of our on-going research into how businesses can translate planetary boundaries to the scale of their organisation.

  • Just 12 companies have set formal targets relating to biodiversity. 
  • Of these formal targets, only 9 are quantifiable, e.g. to use only sustainable seafood. The remaining are qualitative, typically focused on assessing biodiversity impact and/or implementing action plans. 
  • Companies are aiming to achieve the majority of their targets by or before 2020. 
  • 29% of the companies are reporting their impact on critically endangered species such as those on the IUCN red list. However, the challenge remains in translating compliance level measurement into forward-looking targets which seek not only to reduce biodiversity but to support its regeneration.

We also spoke with 38 leading sustainability practitioners, who viewed thresholds associated with biodiversity as one of the most complicated to measure, monitor and evaluate. The key points identified included:

  • Precautionary principle: the complexity of corporate impact on biodiversity required a precautionary approach. One view was that we need to set ‘no go’ zones: areas where we will not cross biodiversity thresholds.
  • Net positive: it is not enough just to limit our impact on biodiversity; we need to develop strategies for enhancement and regeneration.
  • Context matters: organisations operate globally and very locally. Biodiversity targets therefore need to be set in the context of the location. Using non-operational land to deliver better, bigger and more joined-up spaces for biodiversity is an example. Robust sourcing policies to avoid impact across supply chains is another.  

With at least 40% of the world’s economy derived from biological resources, time is running out for ensuring that we remain within our Planetary Boundary for biodiversity.

Article 13 can help you to integrate planetary boundaries and social thresholds into your business strategy, please do get in touch.

Our research explored how over 200 global companies approach the concept of planetary boundaries and social thresholds. To download an executive summary - click her


See for more about the organisation.

[1] Proposed by Rockström et al. of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. For more information, see

Picture - from [Anton Romanov]

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