Greenwashing is a threat to achieving a 'nature positive' world; concept envisages a planet where loss of biodiversity is halted/reversed, but the term is being loosely applied and often linked with questionable biodiversity credit schemes: Oxford study

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OXFORD, England , October 4, 2023 (press release) –

A new study published today warns that vigilance is needed to prevent the concept of a Nature Positive world being threatened by greenwashing. Otherwise, there is a danger that Nature Positive approaches may undermine existing frameworks designed to minimise the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.

The concept of "Nature Positive" envisages a planet where the current rapid loss of biodiversity is halted and reversed, and nature is restored. This is vitally and urgently needed in order to stop the upcoming global mass extinction of species as a result of human destruction of nature, and to maintain the prosperity and wellbeing of humanity, which relies on nature for food, water, clean air, and a healthy environment.

“Nature Positive" has already become a popular phrase within the conservation community, and has been likened to the concept of "Net Zero" for climate change campaigns. Businesses, governments, financiers and conservation organisations have rapidly embraced the idea and made pledges to become Nature Positive. For instance, more than 90 world leaders have signed on to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which calls for a Nature Positive future to be achieved by 2030, and 11 of the global Fortune 100 companies already have aspirations to contribute to the global Nature Positive goal.

However, an international team of researchers has concluded that some of these pledges lack the rigorous scientific framework needed to achieve real impacts. This puts Nature Positive commitments at risk of becoming little more than greenwash: misleading or deceptive publicity disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Furthermore, a ‘Nature Positive approach’ may even cause active harm if it distracts from existing schemes that focus on avoiding and reducing the harmful impacts of economic development on biodiversity.

For instance, infrastructure projects are typically required to carry out an environmental impact assessment before being approved, and then to carry out actions to avoid and minimise impacts on biodiversity, restore biodiversity damaged by the project, and offset any remaining impacts. These actions should ensure that overall biodiversity is left in at least as good a state as it was before the project began (following the so-called "mitigation hierarchy" towards Biodiversity Net Gain). However, Nature Positive pledges do not necessarily need to include concrete commitments to follow the Mitigation Hierarchy framework.

The research team outlined several instances where Nature Positive greenwashing is already taking place.

  • Loose application of the term by NGOs, to mean simply ‘doing things that are good for nature’, for example as part of a broader strategy to tackle climate change.
  • Companies linking the concept with questionable biodiversity credit schemes, whose impact cannot be verified.
  • Proposals by the Australian Government to relax like-for-like compensation requirements. This would allow losses of already highly threatened biodiversity, for which offsets are difficult or impossible, as long as a more general “Nature Positive outcome” is achieved.

Recent work by researchers in Oxford University’s Department of Biology has highlighted the very varied ways in which different businesses and organisations interpret Nature Positive, including UK-based organisations such as the UK Business and Biodiversity Forum, which has a Nature Positive Pledge that companies can make. Many of these definitions don't have at their core the use of the Mitigation Hierarchy to first address a company's direct impacts on nature, before moving on to broader actions to support nature.

Contributing author Dr Joseph Bull (Department of Biology, University of Oxford) said: ‘There is a real concern that - by focusing attention so strongly onto biodiversity credit schemes via Nature Positive pledges – we risk displacing more urgent efforts to minimise impacts on biodiversity. Laudable though proactive conservation efforts are, we will only get to Nature Positive if they come after negative impacts have been mitigated.’

Contributing author Professor Dame EJ Milner-Gulland (Department of Biology, University of Oxford) said: ‘The concept of Nature Positive provides an optimistic and aspirational vision of the future we want for humanity and for nature. But we mustn't let aspirational phrases substitute for taking practical steps to protect nature from damage as much as possible, and ensuring that any damage that is done is fully and demonstrably compensated for. There can be no shortcuts.’

The study was led by The University of Queensland.

Notes to Editors:

For media requests and interviews, contact Professor EJ Milner-Gulland:

The study ‘Nature positive must incorporate, not undermine, the mitigation hierarchy’ will be published in Nature Ecology & Evolution :

To view a copy of the paper, contact Caroline Wood:

Related previous work:
Milner-Gulland, E. J. "Don’t dilute the term Nature Positive." Nature Ecology & Evolution 6.9 (2022): 1243-1244.
Zu Ermgassen, Sophus OSE, et al. "Are corporate biodiversity commitments consistent with delivering ‘nature-positive’ outcomes? A review of ‘nature-positive’ definitions, company progress and challenges." Journal of Cleaner Production (2022): 134798.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number 3 in the QS World Rankings 2024. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 300 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past five years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.

The Department of Biology is a University of Oxford department within the Maths, Physical and Life Sciences Division. It utilises academic strength in a broad range of bioscience disciplines to tackle global challenges such as food security, biodiversity loss, climate change and global pandemics. It also helps to train and equip the biologists of the future through holistic undergraduate and graduate courses. For more information visit

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