Until now, much of the conversation about climate change has centered on carbon capture, greenhouse-gas emissions, and pollution. Over the past few years, however, nature has come into focus as part of the discussion. While preserving—or even improving—biodiversity in nature is important for meeting ambitious decarbonization goals, the lack of data has hindered progress. Fortunately, data derived from eDNA, or DNA left by species in their habitats, can help tell a complete story and help companies make better decisions on how best to conserve and restore nature.
McKinsey recently spoke with Katie Critchlow, CEO of NatureMetrics, about how eDNA and biodiversity-monitoring technology can help the infrastructure industry behave in more environmentally conscious ways and what global leaders can do to continue their progress toward decarbonization goals.
McKinsey: Reflecting on COP27 and the UN Biodiversity Conference [COP15] at the end of 2022, do you feel the right discussions happened among leaders regarding the use of technology to mitigate climate change? What did you find encouraging, and what more is needed?
Katie Critchlow: The pace at which nature has come into focus and has reached a similar level as climate change is incredible. If you think about the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and some of the carbon-reporting legislation, you’ll see that nature has been on a meteoric rise. The way that the private sector has been responding and that banks and communities are thinking about biodiversity has applied pressure from all sides to drive things forward faster.
The question is, how fast can people respond since we’ve only been focusing on carbon? Compared with nature, carbon is easy. Carbon is a molecule, and no matter where in the world it’s emitted, it has basically the same impact on climate change. Nature, however—all life on earth—is much more complex, and the site context matters from both a socioeconomic and a biological perspective. So it is also more complex from an action plan perspective.
In general, people have become more active in addressing climate change, which creates a stronger business case for infrastructure to develop greener spaces. Some infrastructure companies have attempted nature-based solutions for absorbing carbon that aren’t better for nature, such as laying concrete over everything except for a little green patch of grass. Nature-based solutions can do more than just absorb carbon. That’s a new challenge for the future: to integrate nature into a build so that it’s better for people, better for nature, and more resilient to extreme weather.
McKinsey: How does biodiversity monitoring assist infrastructure leaders with increasing efficiency and reducing cost during the planning and execution phases? Can you share a practical example of the opportunities that biodiversity provides compared with traditional surveying methods?
Katie Critchlow: We’re able to collect data on hundreds of different species, from bacteria and fungi to mammals, and turn that into an understanding of whether biodiversity is getting better or worse in a certain area. At the site level, this is as simple as taking a soil sample.
This year, we’re taking the data that we get from eDNA and combining it with remote-sensing data. That way, we can create continuous biodiversity-value maps across large landscapes using machine learning. Eventually, this will help companies that have several large infrastructure projects or are trying to systematically plan at a regional or country level. They’ll be able to consider where the infrastructure should go and how to develop in certain areas.
At the earliest stages of a project, companies can also use these tools to map out the mitigation hierarchy quickly, simply, and affordably. These new tools show the risks and impacts of a project and avoid surprises that can lead to higher costs and time overruns.
McKinsey: What is a unique challenge you have faced while integrating biodiversity monitoring into the infrastructure sector? How far along is the infrastructure sector in thinking about biodiversity, and what makes you hopeful about further progress?
Katie Critchlow: In the infrastructure industry, being able to report your impact on nature is important, and it’s only now becoming more possible and scalable to do so. For example, we’re able to start helping to plan a nature-positive project and monitor it from beginning to end, and we’ve been talking to water utilities as they scrutinize their operations and the risk posed by pollution. They’re considering the best ways to store sewage, and our technology can point them to areas where improvements could have the biggest impact—on rivers, for example. A similar process could be done with agriculture, which has the largest impact on nature.
McKinsey: What are some challenges of using eDNA or biodiversity monitoring at scale? How do you ensure real environmental protection is achieved?
Katie Critchlow: Until now, one of the only data sets for consideration for mitigating nature risk had been the map of protected areas. This is vital, but it’s not enough to manage nature risk. There’s a lot more to biodiversity than that. The bar needs to be raised.
We’ve been scaling up by working with some of our big clients to use machine learning to combine the data we gather on the ground from eDNA with remote-sensing data so we can interpolate across large landscapes. In the future, infrastructure leaders could use this data to plan more systematically for projects that span across regions or even at a country level. We’re prototyping these tools with one large mining company to build net-positive-impact sites that meet regulations during mining stages and restore nature after mining is complete. We’ve also used these tools to work with an ecology company to survey invertebrates as part of postconstruction monitoring of a new wind farm, and we’ve worked with a transportation company to monitor the impact of a road-widening project on four separate habitats.
In terms of ESG [environmental, social, and governance], we don’t want to just tick the box; we want to serve the sector by giving companies scores that are meaningful and showing them what they can do next. The great thing about data taken on the ground is that it can be turned into simple measurements that a board can understand. You can color-code the data to show how one infrastructure project is going compared with another one. But you can also show detail if you need it.
McKinsey: What other technologies are entering the field that can complement this type of monitoring on large infrastructure or capital projects?
Katie Critchlow: Some nature technologies are enabling site-based monitoring, and others are offering more-detailed Earth observation, which is exciting. We’ve also carried out an R&D project that uses bioacoustics to listen to and identify specific species or assess the complexity of the ecosystem based on the sound. Others we are working with are also working to take the manual steps out of camera traps by using AI and using drones to do more vegetation mapping and habitat-condition mapping.
We’ve had to change the perception that nature is only something we can see. The risks and the benefits that we derive from nature often come from everything that we can’t see, such as the carbon sequestration being done by bacteria and fungi, or the nutrient cycles being aided by soil fauna. The biological revolution we’re going through now is exciting. For instance, we’ve never had biological data for soil before, so there is still a lot to learn beyond how many worms you can count in the dirt at a given time.
Because you store that data indefinitely, you can continue to reanalyze it, and the baseline of data becomes more useful over time. In the future, I see biodiversity monitoring as something that people could monitor in the field on an ongoing basis. Our long-term vision is to be nature-intelligence providers who can bring all these data sources together as they get up to a level of robustness that our customers would expect.
This article is part of Global Infrastructure Initiative’s Voices on Infrastructure.