Nature's Fortune and The Market for Corporate Environmental and Social Governance

 

Maximizing business and conserving nature are not mutually exclusive activities. In his book Nature’s Fortune, Cleveland native, former investment banker, and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, argues that indeed, partnering with business as an environmental organization can “create significant conservation gains.”

 

With the Climate Action Plan update process including the creation of a subcommittee focused on Corporate Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) and Mark Tercek’s recent keynote at the 2017 Sustainable Cleveland Summit, exploration of the responsibility corporate leaders feel in addressing climate change is a timely topic in Cleveland.

 

 

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Corporations often peg their responsibility to the terms that are familiar to business analysts: diversified and balanced portfolios to manage risk, innovation, and return on investment. But what if these terms were also used to communicate the value of the biological and natural world-a world we falsely disassociate from? What if these terms coincided with ecological diversity to manage risk, ecosystem services, evolution and adaptation?  This, in large part, is the argument of Nature’s Fortune: the reinforcing activities of doing business and conserving nature are largely stifled because of the words and numbers we use to express value.  Expressing the value of natural services needs to take place explicitly and needs to be made highly relevant for urban economies. During his keynote last month, Mr. Tercek showed us how The Nature Conservancy is doing both by highlighting reports that address climate-related issues facing Cleveland and many other cities. In particular, the reports focus on the number of increasing high/extreme heat days and reduced air and water quality. Regarding heat and air pollution, Mr. Tercek referenced the Planting Healthy Air and Funding Trees for Health reports-both discuss the ROI (return on investment) of planting trees.

 

Some key takeaways from the Planting Healthy Air report include:

 

  • …investing just US$4 per resident in each of [the researched] cities in tree planting efforts could improve the health of millions of people, and that trees are as cost-effective as many other common solutions.

 

  • Most of the cooling and filtering effects created by trees are fairly localized, so densely populated cities—as well as those with higher overall pollution levels—tend to see the highest overall return on investment (ROI) from tree plantings

 

To address the investment gap related to increasing the ecosystem services of trees to deal with heat and air quality, the Funding Trees for Health white paper notes:

 

  • Every year, between 3 and 4 million people around the world die as a result of air pollution and its lifelong impacts on human health, from asthma to cardiac disease to strokes. Each summer, thousands of unnecessary deaths result from heat waves in urban areas. Studies have shown that trees are a cost-effective solution for both of these challenges.

 

  • Yet investment in planting new trees—or even caring for those that exist—is perpetually underfunded. Despite the overwhelming evidence cities are, on average, spending less on trees than in prior decades…[it is] estimated that spending just $8 per person per year, on average, in an American city could meet the funding gap and stop the loss of urban trees and all their potential benefits.

 

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Joining this research with our local Cleveland Tree Plan can drive significant energy across sectors to increase participation in climate resilience efforts. Regarding clean water, Mr. Tercek also noted the monetary benefits of green infrastructure, something our partners at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District have been discovering year after year. Can we look at the cost of treating storm water in terms of asking, as Mr. Tercek did at the Summit, “For every inch of rain, how much water pollution goes into the lake?” or, for every inch of rain captured by gray infrastructure (think traditional pipes and sewer systems), what is the cost of treatment compared to green infrastructure? See this EPA paper for more information on this cost-benefit analysis.

 

Business leaders who have begun to reconcile these two supposedly oppositional drivers are finding a conceptual and financial home in Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) efforts. For more information on how we are engaging the private sector in our Climate Action Plan update, check back for future blogs on our work with BrownFlynn to analyze leading NEO corporations. 


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