Erika Washburn, Ph.D. and Senior Consultant in the Corporate Sustainability & Climate Change Team, was part of the ERM delegation team on the ground at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December. Here she discusses her highlights from the conference, why biodiversity is so important, and what she sees as the way for ERM to help clients in addressing biodiversity-related issues.  

The atmosphere at COP15 was electrifying. Being in the room where the technical leads representing each government were debating the contents of the Global Biodiversity Framework, word by word, period by period, was, much like the rest of the conference, intense. Everyone was riveted. There were even times when the room gave a standing ovation on recommendations to make certain items mandatory. And this was one of many things across my four days there that really stood out to me.  

This experience was a first for me on many fronts - it was my first time at a COP, my first time in Montreal, and my first time being at a conference on this scale as part of the private sector and business community. Biodiversity conservation has been woven into my life, from growing up on a farm in the US Midwest through to my education in obtaining a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and then in my career. Before joining ERM, I spent almost two decades working in the public sector and at environmental NGOs, working on place-based programs involving long term research, monitoring, education, stewardship, and conservation. I even had the opportunity to attend the UN Headquarters as part of the official US State Department delegation for the Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

But being at COP15 was very different from attending an academic conference. There were governments, deliberations, diplomacy and very high stakes involved, but the energy was overwhelmingly positive. My role as part of the ERM team on the ground was to be the eyes and ears in different sessions, listening for opportunities for client needs, and to those different elements where ERM engages, from financial frameworks and standards through to the business sector and the critical role of indigenous and local knowledge and multistakeholder partnerships. 

One thing that really struck me as part of a session taking place in the WBCSD Nature Pavilion was a young boy, of no more than nine years old, giving a speech on the importance of biodiversity from a youth perspective. The room fell silent, and it was so powerful to hear one so young talking about the future for his generation. This messaging was present throughout the venue, with artwork and letters from children to delegates urging people to make brave decisions.  

What I am really excited about with ERM is how we can work with clients and sectors around the globe to improve the work around biodiversity, nature and climate at scale - and at a pace that far exceeds what governments and regulations can do. Biodiversity touches nearly every material topic in a company’s value chain. At ERM, we can talk directly with decision makers and help them understand where the opportunities are, and how they can do this right. We can help guide them in understanding the nuanced relationships between nature, ecosystem services, natural capital and environmental assets and how they can reframe their value chains based on biodiversity, nature, human rights and climate in a way that builds resilience, growth and prosperity for all.  

Immediately coming out of COP15, I had calls with a number of different clients about nature and biodiversity, who were all at different points in their journey. But it’s great that the interest is there from clients and that they immediately want to set things in motion.  

Biodiversity loss is more tangible than trying to conceptualize carbon in the atmosphere. Companies, their customers, their suppliers, their employees, can all see the impacts of the loss of biodiversity first hand. The loss of habitat for polar bears, or the disappearance of a local bird species, or changes in forests, backyard gardens and the foods we eat are easier to understand – and those changes can be alarming. The emotional side of being a human being on this changing planet, is increasingly intense and important for our communities and societies. Our world, lives, economy… everything depends upon biodiversity. I think that emotional aspect really set the undertone for COP15 and the whole global community working in that space, which was, and is, incredibly powerful.  

It’s hard to distil everything that we walked away from COP15 with, but I feel very optimistic and very hopeful that we can, and will, work with clients to help them lead the way on protecting, restoring and conserving the abundance of biodiversity we need. Overall, I think there is a bright future ahead.  

Erika Washburn is a Senior Consultant in the Corporate Sustainability and Climate Change Team based in Michigan, US. She supports clients across a number of sectors and industries in their journey to advance sustainability, adapt to and act on climate change, identify and analyze material issues, develop nature positive strategies, benchmark performance, and develop targets for success. Erika specializes in the development of nature positive strategies at the corporate level and is coordinating ERM’s nature positive network in support of the goals of the Task Force on Nature Related Financial Disclosure.