30.08.2021 // New standards and products

ISO standards relating to biodiversity

from Lea Leibundgut

From June until early July 2021, the ISO Biodiversity Committee ISO/TC 331 held its first plenary meeting, where standardization projects submitted by various ISO member organizations were discussed. Several proposals are based on existing national standards of ISO member organizations. For example, the French standardization organization AFNOR published a standard that addresses a strategic and operational approach for organizations that are looking to promote biodiversity and improve their environmental, social welfare and economic performance. This standard could serve as the basis for a future ISO standard. Olivier Schär, expert on biodiversity, explains what the French standard already covers and what can be expected if the initial formulations of the standard are adopted as an ISO standard.

Why do we need standards for biodiversity?
Environmental influences, including CO2emissions, have a major impact on climate change, but their influence on the mass extinction of species is just as dramatic. Biodiversity loss is considered one of nine «planetary boundaries»* that, when crossed, lead to irreversible environmental changes. The current rate of species extinction is considered to be 10 to 100 times higher than it would be expected if there were no environmental impacts (source: Ipbes, 2019 ) and yet we currently have catalogued only 18% of the species on our planet (source: Journals.plos, 2011 ). The actual number of species living on earth has not even been recorded yet, especially when it comes to insects and arachnids. It is therefore essential to preserve biodiversity. Standards can provide guidance on biodiversity issues – whether with common terminology or with methods on how to assess, evaluate and monitor biodiversity.

*The new planetary boundaries include the climate crisis, ocean acidification, the ozone hole, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, freshwater consumption, deforestation and indirect land use change (ILUC) effects, particle pollution of the atmosphere, pollution by chemicals and loss of biodiversity.

The standardization committee for biodiversity issues ISO/TC 331
The initiative to establish an ISO standardization committee for biodiversity issues was submitted by the French standardization organization AFNOR at the beginning of 2020 and adopted with the necessary majority. The committee was formed in July 2020. The first plenary meeting of the committee took place almost a year later, from the end of June until the beginning of July 2021.

The interest in the meeting was great, and more than 100 participants were in attendance each day. More than 50 countries from all five continents are represented on the standardization committee. In addition, the members have agreed to a liaison with the external organizations listed below. Liaison organizations are provided with access to all documents of the technical committee and make a contribution to the standardization work but cannot vote on draft standards.

  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
  • Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)

In addition, members of ISO/TC 331 propose the establishment of a liaison with the following organizations:

  • Convention on Wetlands of International Importance
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

As usual at first plenary meetings of ISO standardization committees, the positioning of the technical committee was discussed, along with how it is distinguished from other ISO standardization committees. The participants agreed to the originally proposed scope with the following changes:
The original wording of «standards for the protection of biodiversity» was removed; instead, the committee agreed on the wording of «standards in the field of biodiversity».

The scope of ISO/TC 331 now reads as follows:
«Standardization in the field of biodiversity to develop principles, framework, requirements, guidance and supporting tools in a holistic and global approach for all relevant organizations to enhance their contribution to sustainable development.»

Two calls for standards projects were launched by ISO/TC 331, whereupon a variety of different country organizations submitted several different project proposals.
The various proposals can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Terminology
  • Assessment, monitoring and evaluation of biodiversity
  • Conservation and ecological restoration
  • Integration of issues of biodiversity into organizations
  • Integration of issues of biodiversity into territories (across geographical boundaries)
  • Information, codification and access to data and indicators (in regard to providers/users)
  • Other

All proposals and the findings from the discussions about the submitted proposals will be incorporated into the strategic positioning of ISO/TC 331. For the rest of the process and in order to prepare for possible standards projects, it is important to subject proposals to a gap analysis so that the work of other ISO standardization committees and external organizations is not reproduced and so that such previous work is built upon. In its strategic business plan, ISO/TC 331 also wants to make it clear that the work is to align with but not duplicate international protocols and conventions such as the Nagoya Protocol.

The following topics relating to biodiversity are explored in depth by so-called ad hoc groups (AHGs), which will be disbanded again after presentation of their findings:

  • AHG 2: measurement, data, monitoring and assessment
  • AHG 3: restoration, conservation and protection
  • AHG 4: organizations, strategies and sustainable use

Terminology is the basis for a common understanding in standardization work and involves creating a common language to prevent confusion and misinterpretation. In the meantime, an initial draft of a technical report on general terminology was provided by the Chinese standardization organization. SNV experts can vote on this document. A technical report is produced more quickly than a standard, because a simple majority of the members participating in the committee is sufficient for adoption instead of a two-thirds majority as with a conventional ISO standard.

The French standard NF X32-001 – a good basis for an ISO standard
An ISO standard with guidelines and requirements for a biodiversity concept applicable to any type of organization has been proposed by the French standardization organization based on its national standard NF X32-001.

Olivier Schär is a biodiversity expert and is familiar with the French standard NF X32-001. On the question of why the economy should care about biodiversity conservation at all, he has the following to say:

«According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), biodiversity loss is the third highest risk. Without biodiversity, there is no drinking water, no timber, no flood protection, no climate that we can live with. When companies consider biodiversity in decision-making processes, the risk is minimized in the procurement of resources, making investments in the future of the company and adapting to changes in legislation.»

For Olivier Schär, biodiversity and the economy have a global dynamic that is reminiscent of the climate movement. He explains:

«Between the climate strikes and the pending United Nations global biodiversity framework, the economy is slowly but surely taking centre stage, just as it did with the climate. Who can remember a time when climate was not an issue in Swiss politics? In the same way, Swiss legislation will support measures to encourage companies to promote biodiversity in the years to come. And as with climate change, governments should be able to count the private sector’s contributions towards their national commitments.»

In regard to French standard NF X32-001, he has the following to say:

«Biodiversity is an issue that demands two qualities from a company: a shift towards spatial planning and comprehensive, cross-divisional integration. This means that application of the standard requires deployment along the entire value chain, at least ‘from cradle to gate’, as well as cooperation from a wide range of stakeholders (from non-governmental organizations to public administration to corporate management). The aim is to define measures that pursue quantitative goals. In addition, the results are to be monitored regularly and communicated publicly. A company will then be able to develop a credible biodiversity policy that provides a sustainable competitive advantage.»

For Olivier Schär, the standard is a tool that meets the needs of the private sector in terms of adaptability, the ability to complement other standards and recognition. He elaborates as follows:

«The standard can be adapted to any company size: A large company can apply it to a single unit or to the entire organization, while a very small company can launch its environmental policy with biodiversity.

The standard complements and is consistent with ISO environmental standards such as ISO 14001, which facilitates integration into an existing environmental management system. It also enables integration of other policies such as the ‘Science-based targets for nature’ or the national Business and Biodiversity Initiatives.

It is recognised by all (French) nature protection stakeholders and allows them to operate using a common language and with a common methodology. This means that a company can promote use of this standard to its client base as well as build partnerships on this basis.»

For the expert, the development of an ISO standard for biodiversity concepts is highly in demand, as it provides a methodology with global reach. According to Olivier Schär, the following features would need to be taken into account during the development of an ISO standard in order to ensure that it is broadly applied:

«The ISO standard must be modified so that internationally active companies can adapt it. It should therefore be in line with the future global framework for biodiversity (the global biodiversity convention). In addition, the tools and approaches will evolve over the years to come. These developments are to be reflected in the ISO standard so that the private sector will also be able to benefit from the latest scientific findings. The state of biodiversity is not expected to change in the long term. Last but not least, an ISO standard should take into account the growing importance of biodiversity in the economy. After all, the private sector is beginning to develop the financial resources and knowledge to implement biodiversity concepts. Finally, the diversity of political systems represented in the ISO is a major challenge, as the conservation of biodiversity generally concerns public authorities to a great extent. Finding the right level of interaction between the business world and government planning authorities will be a complex challenge.»

Swiss standard relating to biodiversity?
For ISO, consensus is the most important factor. With standards projects, two-thirds of the participating member countries therefore need to agree to the adoption of a standards project and its subsequent publication. This means that the development of standards often takes three years (if there is a prevailing consensus, the development time can sometimes be reduced to 18 months). This means that an ISO biodiversity standard will not be published overnight. If Swiss stakeholders need such a standard, there is also the option of developing a Swiss standard relating to biodiversity or of adapting an existing standard. Olivier Schär says that some peculiarities of the Swiss situation need to be taken into account with such a project:

«The conservation of biodiversity is primarily the responsibility of the cantons, and the cantons also manage most of the available financial resources. This means that a Swiss standard should include a link to the public cantonal administrations and their plans for action. For companies to participate, an environment conducive to innovation is required. A Swiss standard should therefore find a compromise between the different aspirations of the business community and the cantonal administration in terms of the timing of the implementation. It is essential to have all stakeholders in the area of nature protection (including non-governmental organizations and science) recognize a potential standard. The development should therefore take this into account, as only then can companies build on this legitimacy. A Swiss standard could accelerate the engagement of the private sector and lead nature protection in Switzerland to a version 2.0. Development of such a standard requires solutions that do not currently exist. This breath of fresh air will certainly be associated with new perspectives for Swiss biodiversity both from a financial and an operational standpoint.»

The role of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) in biodiversity standards
The SNV is a participating member of the ISO biodiversity standardization committee ISO/TC 331 and contributes the opinion of its national experts to this body. This means that the SNV experts of the national committee (INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability) that corresponds to ISO/TC 331 vote on all ISO topics related to biodiversity. They thus shape Switzerland’s national opinion on biodiversity issues, which the SNV then contributes to ISO/TC 331.

With a membership in the SNV, interested biodiversity experts can help shape the ISO standards relating to biodiversity. Furthermore, the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) is the federally designated standardization organization in Switzerland, offering experts a platform for developing Swiss standards, including a possible Swiss biodiversity standard.

You are invited to participate!
Would you like to help shape the future biodiversity standards? As an SNV member, you will meet other national industry experts and can discuss new draft standards with them. You will also have the opportunity to establish international contacts and participate in ISO standardization committee working group meetings, where you can actively shape standards.

Your contact person for further information:
Lea Leibundgut, , Tel: +41 52 224 54 21

Further information on the IUCN
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Since its founding in 1948, the IUCN has cooperated with partners in the business community to conserve and ensure the integrity and diversity of nature as well as to ensure that the use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

The IUCN Business and Biodiversity Programme was launched in 2003 with the aim of influencing and supporting private partners in addressing environmental and social welfare issues. The programme’s work is guided by an IUCN Council-approved corporate engagement strategy to involve business sectors that have a significant impact on natural resources and the bases of life. These include «large-footprint» industries such as mining, oil and gas; biodiversity-dependent industries such as fishing, agriculture, forestry and financial services; and «green» economic activities such as organic farming, renewable energy and nature-based tourism.

Additional information on Olivier Schär
Biodiversity expert Olivier Schär has extensive experience in biodiversity management and a solid background in ecology, engineering and management. After working in the field of conservation consultancy on the national level, he managed a Swiss regional nature park (territory committed to sustainable development). He was a member of the Swiss Parks Network board for several years. Following that, he continued as a programme officer in the IUCN Business and Biodiversity Programme.
Since 2020, he has been working as an entrepreneur and sole proprietor with his company BioPerf.biz, in which he advises companies on their biodiversity performance.

Contact: olivier.schar@bioperf.biz / www.bioperf.biz

«When companies consider biodiversity in decision-making processes, the risk is minimized in the procurement of resources, making investments in the future of the company and adapting to changes in legislation.»

Olivier Schär

«When companies consider biodiversity in decision-making processes, the risk is minimized in the procurement of resources, making investments in the future of the company and adapting to changes in legislation.»

The French Standard NF X32-001:2021 Biodiversity – Approach to biodiversity in organizations – Requirements and guidelines is available in French in the SNV online shop .

Other standards with reference to or mention of biodiversity


Ipbes - Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019
Journal.plos - Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?

Additional information:

Environment & Sustainability NK 174
ISO/TC 331 Biodiversity
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Newsartikel ISO-Normenkomitee «Biodiversität»
Bundesrat erteilt Mandat für die internationale Biodiversitätskonferenz

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