Social requirements for a well-designed unit

As discussed earlier, approaching the biodiversity unit as merely a technical problem will not lead to a solution. Climate change and Indigenous equity are two well-recognized wicked problems, in the biodiversity unit they compound with existing technical problems (9). We cannot simply solve, we must negotiate.

The biodiversity unit is not only an economic problem, but also a historical, sociological, anthropological, political, and legal one. A universally abstracted unit must cross paradigms between the industrialized, and non-industrialized worlds, and protect non-human species as entities with the inherent right to exist. Not least, it must function in accounting for Nature in regulatory, charitable, and commercial contexts during a profound transition of economic and legal models formerly built on colonialism and extraction. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2022, colonialism and inequity are primary drivers of the vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change, and also a chief barrier to recovery (33). This task is impossible when viewed through competing ideological lenses; unifying principles must be found.

Conventional economic theory must adapt to address markets where the majority of the supply is controlled by groups that don't transact via conventional economic mechanisms, or where we want to adapt these mechanisms because they have historically inflicted severe harm (34).

Indigenous Peoples are both a critical stakeholder and shareholder in negotiating a proper unit for embryonic biodiversity markets. The UN and World Bank estimate they control 80% of the intact biodiversity on the planet (35). Together with local communities, they account for 30% of the intact planet and own or manage nearly half of the world’s forests and farm landscapes (36–38).

Yet they are a minority, numbering only six percent of the planet's total population while accounting for a disproportionate 19% of its population living in extreme poverty (39). Thus, despite international rights to consultation and direct involvement in the design of markets that affect them, they are often underrepresented or excluded from market negotiations and require special protections (17, 40). Indeed, trade with IP is protected in a separate category with unique protocols under international law and local Indigenous governing structure and dimensionality that may not conform to Western systems (41).

Both IP and LC are also worth consulting for technical reasons. They have better long-term outcomes for forest management (42), protect biodiversity effectively in sovereign lands (43), and comprise essential knowledge, expertise, and impact for the preservation of species (44). Further, LC, if not directly incentivized, are the greatest risk to habitat destruction (45).

However, we must acknowledge existing markets have failed in inclusion and equity. IP and LC currently receive less than 1-2% of the funding from existing climate markets (38, 46). Our best current evidence shows that trade and market-based schemes have made little impact against deforestation, and in some cases worsened economic inequality (40, 47).

If colonialism caused climate change, we must address the two issues as linked (33). A unit that is intended to meet GBF aims must be intuitively acceptable to IP and LC, remediate or ameliorate economic inequality, and take advantage of non-industrialized technical expertise. We propose that a successful unit transcends three core paradigms: tangibility, dynamism, and anthropocentrism.

A tangible unit is not only good for commodities markets, tangibility is also better at achieving value in both industrialized and non-industrialized paradigms. We know from the disciplines of philosophy and anthropology that epistemology, axiology, and ontology vary widely between industrialized and non-industrialized cultures (48, 49). For instance, an intangible unit like a ton of carbon computed from a forest study immediately leads to a dearth of IP or LC specialists on the topic and requires intermediaries versed in this kind of epistemological knowledge (e.g. allometric equations and satellite forest modeling) (18). In contrast, a ton of goji berries might require as much depth of expertise to deliver, but both industrialized and non-industrialized world can easily conceptualize, measure, and trade it. There is no reason a biodiversity unit must be intangible (e.g. calculated score from machine learning algorithm) instead of tangible and measurable by both epistemic cultures (e.g. a hectare of intact ecosystem).

Larger area-based units also allow for dynamism. Conceptualizations of biodiversity as an object to be traded belie its dynamic qualities. In contrast, IP often have living-systems perspectives that are relational, or praxis-based. One simple way to resolve this apparent discrepancy is not to reduce units for biodiversity below that of functional units for an ecosystem.

IP perspectives also adjust for anthropocentrism. Many proposed units reward anthropocentrism by measuring biodiversity in terms of human priorities (human scoring systems, human effort, commodification of ecosystem services or land cost) (30). In contrast, IP initiatives explicitly demand that biodiversity cannot be judged around its value to humans, it must be measured from the perspective of an intrinsic right to exist (50). Further, units which prioritize uplift or threat over conservation or intactness will have profound effects on both resource allocation to Indigenous Peoples and fail to reward Nature within its own context. Thus, a well-designed unit must account for the possibility of legal rights of Nature, different paradigms of animal ownership and/or custodianship, and measure biodiversity based on outcomes for all species, not only humans.

As a final consideration, there is no doubt that area-based units transacting through commercial structures do run the risk of exacerbating existing inequities in land rights. But this problem, while important (and wicked), cannot be resolved or addressed at the level of a unit, and must be accounted for in other social and/or governance mechanisms (see Figure 1).

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