By Cameron Frayling, Zoe Balmforth (Pivotal) and Isha Sharma (Octopus Ventures)
‘Each generation understands a different baseline for biodiversity – has a different intuitive sense of the abundance and diversity of life that is normal. Historical records speak of a time when fish schools were so dense that ‘an axe thrust into their midst would stay upright’. Now, we can hardly imagine an ocean so abundant with life that we would describe it like that’ – Cameron
‘Things are starting change. That’s what I personally find gives me hope and optimism. I’ve been working in the biodiversity space for a long time and this really does feel like a pivotal moment right now. There is finally momentum behind financing for nature at scale’ – Zoe
I sat down with Cameron and Zoe, co-founders of Pivotal, to dig into the importance of biodiversity. Cameron and Zoe are passionate about the power of nature. It’s a philosophy I share, but I was quickly humbled by our conversation and the stark realisation that our collective knowledge of nature only grazes the surface of what there is to understand. The natural world is delicately nuanced, made up of complex systems, and we have a desperate need for greater technical capability and innovation if we are to correct some of the misguided decisions the world has made to date.
All hope is not lost. The expertise exists – we found it in Pivotal. If we unlock financing for nature in the right way, with the right frameworks and technology, our partnership with nature will prove far more powerful than we thought possible. Octopus Ventures, part of Octopus Investments, looks to invest in the people, ideas and industries that will change the world. We are proud to support Cameron and Zoe, and share their vision to create meaningful change in this space.
Here is what I learned from our conversation:
Humanity’s dependency on nature goes far beyond the parts that are directly useful to us.
Nature is a resource. Many people believe this means we should prioritise protecting the parts of nature which are directly useful to us. The specific trees that give us medicine, for example, or the mangroves that provide flood defence, or the species of bees that can make honey.
But nature is a system, made up of a vast, almost unimaginable number of components that are interconnected and dependent on each other, as well as on the system itself. If we focus on protecting only the parts we directly use, we risk upsetting the delicate balance in those systems, and, like falling dominos, triggering cascades and wiping out the things we directly need.
There are many examples of these interdependencies and ecological cascades. When sea otters were hunted to near extinction in the Pacific Northwest for their fur, the effect on the fishing industry was devastating. Sea otters prey on urchins, so as sea otter numbers declined, urchin numbers exploded. The urchins began to overgraze the kelp forests, which were essential as food and habitat for commercially important fish, crabs, clams and other species. The loss of kelp forests had a cascading effect on the entire ecosystem; the populations of many economically important species declined, and some species were lost altogether.
Clearly, everything is connected. To protect the parts of nature that we make use of, we must protect the systems that they depend on for survival. And that means protecting lots of variety in species and habitats – even the things we think are not important to us.
Valuing specific components of nature almost always fails because when you map value this way, you tend to only value the nature that is proximate and delivers the most services to humankind. In doing so, you fail to accurately value the nature you cannot see. A forest might seem too far away to matter, but it can be this very forest that generates rainfall, creating the river that delivers the ecosystem services we depend upon in the first place.
Nature markets are coming and will likely require us to put a unit on biodiversity.
We’re starting to see the emergence of nature markets, which will require that we can assign value to concepts like shifts in ecosystem health over time. It is likely that these markets will require changes in various complex aspects of nature to be combined into a single unit value. The detail of how we create those units matters. The mathematical frameworks we use to define them are fundamental to ensuring they accurately reflect shifts in the health of ecosystems, rather than, for example, individual components of nature. They are vital to ensuring investment is directed to where it makes the biggest positive difference for the planet.
As financing for nature grows, we must ensure we know the outcomes.
‘There is finally momentum behind financing for nature at scale.’
While people are finally realising the significance of the role nature plays, there are (too) many examples of the things that can go wrong when funding is action-focussed instead of outcome-focussed.
Let us explain what that means.
Imagine an area of the Amazon, a patchwork of bare deforested land interwoven with beautiful standing forest. Now imagine an initiative that comes in and pledges to deliver 150,000 saplings and fund tree planting in that area. Sounds great, right? But what if the outcomes of the tree planting are never measured? How do we know that the saplings survived? If they did survive, how do we know that they were nurtured so that they grew into a healthy forest full of birds, frogs, monkeys, insects and all the other life driven out by deforestation? How do we even know that the beautiful forest that was still standing wasn’t cut down to make way for the tree planting? As you might have guessed, this is a real example, and the outcomes were not good.
Nature is complex and chaotic, and we cannot predict outcomes or expect it to always respond to intervention in the same way. Unless we measure how biodiversity is really changing over time, we won’t have any certainty that the emerging nature markets are having a positive impact. We need evidence that will allow us to see whether those trees survive, or if an invasive species needs to be removed to restore balance in an ecosystem. We must all demand evidence for what financing for nature is really delivering.
The problem is (or was) that this evidence has traditionally been too difficult and expensive to collect at scale. But thankfully, technology is changing the game. And this is where Pivotal comes in.
The Pivotal solution.
Pivotal is using advances in technology – from ground-based sensors and cinematic drone flights to acoustic sensors and AI – to build the most detailed set of annotated, species-level biodiversity data ever to be compiled – while providing scalable, quality controlled analytics to show evidence of any biodiversity gains on the ground.
Pivotal can then link these measured gains to a variety of financial mechanisms – such as sustainability linked bonds and biodiversity credits, enabling money to flow to the projects and activities that create the most positive change. This allows for scalability, as evidence of real improvements in biodiversity is critical to the expansion of innovative financial mechanisms which fund the restoration of nature.
The Pivotal team have built this company from their combined experiences on the ground.
Cameron and Zoe recently travelled to the Ecuadorean Amazon. Located in the foothills of the Andes, the area is the source of several rivers that feed into the Amazon River itself, flowing on into Brazil and forming the life blood of the Amazonian ecosystems that comprise one of Earth’s great lungs. Forest is rapidly being lost from this part of the Amazon; the sound of chainsaws is constant. Some of the deforestation is to make space to grow crops that we see on our supermarket shelves. Did you know, for example, that the cinnamon in your hot cross bun may have come from plantations cut into the Amazon here?
Forest loss has now reached the stage where it’s affecting the rainfall, which is worrying to locals who feel the weather pattens shift, know why, but see no interventions that support them to make necessary changes. There have been attempts to help, but too few checks on the outcomes, meaning few incentives to ensure those programmes are actually delivered. And nature isn’t the only thing that’s impacted. Livelihoods are put at stake as local land is degraded, rainfall patterns shift and the already wafer-thin profit margins on farming get thinner.
Pivotal’s approach is different. They lean on the experiences of locals and create jobs within communities as a result of their activity on the ground. Local experts are employed to help with species identification, which informs the technology so that it delivers better outcomes. Funds for positive impact are directed to the areas where that positive impact is in evidence, uplifting local livelihoods at the same time as driving positive change for nature. A fly wheel of positive impact is created which ends up benefitting both people and the planet. Pivotal’s solution is a crucial step-change in how we think about, measure and evidence biodiversity, whilst also engaging with communities on the ground to understand the real landscape as it develops and changes.
There has never been a more important moment to embrace nature. Pivotal provides the solution that gives us the capability to do this, and do it well.