The Equator Principles encourage open access to environmental impact data through the GBIF network

Update to risk management framework adopted by financiers and advisors of large-scale projects promotes transparency through sharing of non-sensitive biodiversity data

Tom Price, Pilbara, Western Australia
Panorama, Tom Price: mining town in Pilbara, Western Australia. Photo 2014 by Robyn Jay, via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The latest update to the Equator Principles urges developers of large infrastructure and industrial projects to share non-sensitive biodiversity data from environmental impact assessments into the GBIF network. With the Principles' history of enhancing environmental and social responsibility around other management practices in the financial sector and banking industry, this new guidance could lead to a significant increase in the availability of primary biodiversity data available from the private sector.

The Equator Principles are a voluntary, structured reporting framework that gives financial institutions and their clients a common baseline for identifying, assessing and managing environmental and social risks. Originally linked to environmental and social policy frameworks established by the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation, the Principles serve a common minimum standard for due diligence and responsible risk decision-making.

"The new recommendations in the Equator Principles mark an important milestone for demonstrating the benefit of open biodiversity data to private companies around the world," said Joe Miller, Executive Secretary of GBIF. "Shared environmental data can greatly increase transparency and reduce duplication of effort, saving time and money to help make both businesses and regulators more efficient, effective and socially responsible."

Signatory banks—known as Equator Principles Financial Institutions (EFPIs)—provide funding and financial advice to large infrastructure and industrial projects around the world. The 101 member institutions from 38 countries that have officially adopted the Principles cover the majority of international project finance debt in developed and emerging markets.

The updated Principles affect EFPI clients whose projects have capital costs of US$10 million or more and present potentially adverse environmental and social risks. The reporting and transparency section includes the following new provision:

The EPFI will encourage the client to share commercially non-sensitive Project-specific biodiversity data with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and relevant national and global data repositories, using formats and conditions to enable such data to be accessed and re-used in future decisions and research applications.

In practice, this guideline relates primarily to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which document and evaluate possible effects of proposed projects on their areas of influence. Historically, with few exceptions, biodiversity survey data gathered during assessments is not reused or consulted after the initial analyses and approval processes. The updated guidelines also apply to data collected after the construction of new infrastructure to monitor impacts, and the effectiveness of mitigation measures to minimize harm to biodiversity from a development project.

Local and national regulatory processes often use EIAs to identify key environmental issues in advance. In addition to avoiding costs related to environmental treatment and remediation and improving project design, EIAs can yield cost savings by reducing the time needed to approve and deliver projects.

The release of the updated Equator Principles coincides with other efforts across the GBIF network to increase access to private-sector biodiversity data.

The GBIF Capacity Enhancement Support Programme (CESP) has co-funded OpenPSD, a collaboration of five GBIF national nodes led by GBIF Spain to promote the publication and use of biodiversity data by the private sector. The project builds on efforts by a number of GBIF nodes—for example, Norway, Portugal, Colombia and France—to engage private companies and bring them into the broader data publishing network.

Meanwhile, the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI) has led efforts to improve access to and aggregation and management of biodiversity information collected by companies and the state government in Western Australia. A just-released report, Digital Transformation of Environmental Assessments, documents how digital technologies can streamline the capture, supply and interpretation of data in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process.

GBIF is working with the Equator Principles Biodiversity Working Group to produce simple guidance that enables EFPIs and their clients to comply with the recommendation to share biodiversity data. The Equator Principles Association will leverage the Cross-Sector Biodiversity Initiative—a existing partnership with extractive industry groups like IPIECA and the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM)—to guide and train key potential suppliers of biodiversity data.