Shipra Gupta: ‘we believe in the first-mover advantage of nature investing’
Shipra Gupta, investments stewardship lead at Scottish Widows, argues that investing in nature sooner rather than later makes sound financial sense
The sheer scale of the financial risk posed by nature degradation and biodiversity loss has led to an increasing response from society, businesses, investors and policymakers.
The World Economic Forum, for example, estimates that approximately half the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature, meaning if those ecosystems collapse, so will the economy.
Scottish Widows has called on the UK government to become the first to mandate economy-wide Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) reporting requirements, the final version of which is due later this month.
More than 400 businesses and finance institutions called on governments at the UN Biodiversity COP15 to make nature disclosures mandatory.
The emphasis on disclosures essentially stems from the old adage: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
Shipra Gupta, investments stewardship lead at Scottish Widows, argues that businesses and investors must go beyond simply managing and mitigating risk.
They should create positive impact by halting and reversing biodiversity loss, in line with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, she said.
What is the main investment case for nature restoration and conservation?
In addition to the much needed mitigation of Nature-related risks, Nature-related opportunities include the chance to lead the transition to a nature-positive economy through investment in innovative nature-based solutions.
Making such investments now rather than later creates a first-mover advantage, potentially translating as more favourable terms for investments, gaining market share and reputational benefits, and emerging strongly on the various metrics being developed to help investors measure the impact of their portfolios on biodiversity.
What internal challenges do pension funds face?
In the last decade or so, pension funds (in addition to other things) have focused on climate change, requiring an increase in capability and capacity building. Policy and regulation have prioritised climate, introducing additional disclosure and compliance requirements.
In that respect, biodiversity is still a nascent topic for pension providers. It is also far more complex than climate, given the breadth and depth of underlying drivers. Often called the mother of all themes, it encompasses not only climate change, but other environmental and "social" factors like pollution, land- and sea-use change, human/indigenous rights and free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).
Strong governance around the integration of nature and biodiversity considerations into investment is essential. Translating the complexity into internal policies and framework often involves an element of upskilling trustees, senior stakeholders and investment teams.
While lessons from climate change can be applied, biodiversity has several nuances. For example, unlike climate change, biodiversity impacts are location specific and cannot be reduced to a single metric. A whole new approach is needed to assess a portfolio’s impacts, risks and dependencies, with "double-materiality" baked in from the start. This complexity can create “bandwidth” issues in a company’s resources.
What are pension funds already doing?
Despite internal challenges, many funds and providers have begun to look at biodiversity in earnest. Some approaches include focusing on sub-themes like deforestation/land use change, which serve as proxies for biodiversity loss.
Another is identifying hotpots in portfolios: investments where high dependencies on ecosystem services put value generation at risk.
There is also investment in nature-related thematic funds and nature-related engagement with investee companies and policymakers.
Engaging with investee companies on their related policies and practices continues to be an important lever for pension funds when managing nature-related investment risk.
Our Nature and Biodiversity report is a great place to start, as it outlines where and how pension funds can begin and includes pointers for policymakers.
What are the main external challenges? For example, nature data availability and usability as well as a lack of standardised metrics are often mentioned.
The urgency of the nature crisis and the need to mobilise capital from private finance has resulted in a rapid evolution in development of biodiversity measurement approaches, foot printing tools and metrics, some specifically built for financial institutions.
A disparate abundance of approaches has caused some confusion among pension funds, particularly surrounding which tools should be used and what data should be collected and disclosed.
The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) will help to introduce a common approach to biodiversity risk, dependency, and impact assessment. Wide adoption of the framework across economies will go some way to addressing the issue of patchy datasets but will take time and will still be reliant upon evolution of metrics and understanding.
It is such metrics – for example, extent condition and mean species abundance – which the industry must begin to understand at a rapid pace. Unlike carbon, biodiversity risk and impact cannot currently be assessed, measured, and reported upon using one metric, which is recognised by the ten core indicators in TNFD.
Pension funds cannot wait for perfection and must work with the tools that are available to begin assessment of biodiversity pressures. Steps should include leveraging guidance from the Finance for Biodiversity Foundation on conducting biodiversity measurement and that from Make My Money Matter on deforestation-free pensions.
What data is most readily available and where are the shortfalls?
Publicly available datasets on deforestation like Forest 500 and SPOTT can support portfolio assessments. Additionally there are environmental corporate disclosures via CDP and frameworks like ENCORE, a free, online tool that helps organisations explore their exposure to nature-related risk and take the first steps to understand their dependencies and impacts on nature. Financial institutions in particular can use data from ENCORE to identify nature-related risks they are exposed to through their lending, underwriting and investment in high-risk industries and sub-industries.
Many data providers are working on their offerings, looking at using AI and geo-spatial data and co-creating feeds with the investment industry. However, these require a clear set of KPIs to chase and rely on disclosures from companies ranging from those related to their supply chains, to more robust disclosures around their inputs of ecosystem services such as water usage and of their outputs like waste management.
It’s important to add that while there is plenty of research covering the impact of certain economic activities on nature degradation and biodiversity loss – thanks to the non-profit community and academia – there hasn’t been enough in terms of establishing the scale of nature-related financial risks to the UK economy and how impacts and dependencies translate into specific financial risks.
The good news is that central banks are working on this, including the Bank of England, so the industry is watching to see how this progresses.