Q&A: the inside track on BHP & Conservation International’s unlikely partnership

Scarlett Evans 4 December 2019 (Last Updated December 4th, 2019 10:20)

In August, BHP and environmental group Conservation International (CI) renewed their unlikely partnership, seeking to tackle climate change through biodiversity conservation. While the deal has seen the protection of some 620,000 hectares of land, as well as several endangered species, the charity has come under fire for its collaboration with the mining company. Marielle Canter Weikel, CI’s senior director for responsible mining and energy, explains what the partnership has achieved.

Q&A: the inside track on BHP & Conservation International’s unlikely partnership
BHP’s Nickel West integrated operations. Credit: © BHP.

Scarlett Evans (SE): What have been the achievements seen thus far from your partnership with BHP?

Marielle Canter Weikel (MCW): Through our partnership, BHP has invested more than $50m in conservation projects — conserving hundreds of thousands of hectares of high conservation value land in Australia, Chile, Kenya, and Peru, protecting 16 threatened species and enhancing the livelihoods of 2,500 people.

With support from CI, BHP also integrated forest carbon into its broader climate change strategy, through support for REDD+, the United Nations program for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This included development of the Forests Bond, a first-of-its-kind bond issued by the IFC. The bond offers investors the choice of a cash coupon or a coupon in the form of forest carbon credits from an iconic REDD project, the Kasigau Corridor REDD Project in Kenya. This also included BHP investment in CI’s emblematic Alto Mayo Protected Forest REDD+ project, which enabled improved forest governance and alternative livelihood opportunities to reduce deforestation, including sustainable coffee growing.

From the success of the bond, as well as BHP’s other investments in REDD+, BHP, CI and Baker McKenzie launched the Finance for Forests Initiative, which seeks to advance the private sector’s understanding and support for forest conservation via REDD+.

Through this initiative, the group highlights BHP’s actions in this space, exploring other innovative financial mechanisms to conserve forests and further advance REDD+, in addition to other natural climate solutions.

SE: How important are ‘natural climate solutions’ in helping to combat climate change?

MCW: The world’s greatest, most cost-effective and immediately available technology in the fight against climate change is nature. Nature can provide at least 30% of the emissions reductions needed to keep global temperature increases under two degrees Celsius, and we simply will not reach the goals of the Paris Agreement without harnessing nature as a climate solution.

However, nature is the forgotten solution. Though it can provide at least 30% of the emissions reductions we need, historically it only receives approximately 2-3% of global mitigation funding.

CI believes that there is both a need and an opportunity for the private sector to invest in and support natural climate solutions to help nature realise its full potential as a climate solution. This is a trend that can be seen in recent years where private sector action on climate change has rapidly accelerated.

However, investment in natural climate solutions must be done responsibly to ensure positive environmental and social outcomes, as well as establishing credibility for private sector actors in this space. This includes ensuring that investment in natural climate solutions is contextualised in a broader portfolio of actions to advance low carbon energy delivery and are ideally aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement. High-quality carbon accounting and project design standards must be utilised, while equitable benefit sharing with local communities and host governments must be ensured, and environmental and social safeguards should be maintained.

SE: Do you think we’re likely to see more ventures like this in the industry? If so, do you think they will sufficiently mitigate any environmental damage caused by operations?

MCW: Historically, many of the world’s largest mining companies have partnered with conservation organisations, primarily seeking opportunities to collaborate with the company to advance best practice and reduce their impact, and frequently also channeling their philanthropic funding as well. However, with unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss around the world, and the rapidly approaching tipping point in the fight against climate change, we anticipate that more companies will seek opportunities to work with conservation organisations.

The trend we’ve seen over the last year is that many companies in the resources sector are actively addressing how they tackle climate change, and some are even including support for natural climate solutions within that. As most companies are new to this space, they are likely to seek collaboration with a conservation organisation to ensure that such investments are done responsibly.

Sufficiently mitigating environmental damage caused by operations is ultimately the responsibility of a company, though depending on the partnership there could be opportunity for a conservation organisation to advise companies on applying the mitigation hierarchy and avoid, mitigate, restore and eventually offset their impact.

CI believes that the use of offsets should lead to a no net loss of biodiversity, and ideally create a net positive impact through conservation gains that go beyond offsetting a project’s residual impact. CI also recognises the importance of ‘additional conservation actions’ in benefiting biodiversity, such as building the capacity of local conservation organisations or investing in local biodiversity research. These foster even stronger conservation outcomes but cannot be quantitatively linked to compensating for residual impacts.

SE: I’m sure there are some who criticize any collaboration with a mining group, regardless of the scheme. How do you respond to such criticism?

MCW: CI believes that the biggest gains for the planet and people alike will be achieved through collaborative efforts, including with private sector actors such as the resources sector. Through collaboration, CI and other organisations have the opportunity to advocate for responsible practices related to biodiversity, climate change, water and community engagement and challenge them to seek further opportunities for growth and leadership.

Furthermore, CI believes that climate change is the biggest conservation challenge of our lifetime, and if we’re not working with the biggest emitters we don’t believe we will be successful in combatting the climate crisis. The world needs the expertise, agility and funding the private sector brings to the table to tackle and scale conservation solutions.

SE: What does the future hold for the partnership?

MCW: The next five years will build off of the success and lessons learned from the first phase of the partnership. We hope to increase private sector funding and market stimulation for natural climate solutions, develop and implement a framework for evaluating BHP’s impact on and benefits to biodiversity with an eye toward opportunities to scale this across and beyond the resources sector, and inform the company’s management of land and biodiversity.

Through this collaboration both organisations aim to demonstrate leadership in environmental performance and accelerated action on climate change that others — including companies and governments — can replicate to work towards a sustainable, climate-resilient future.