Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute (ALLI)

Meet Dr Joel Houdet

27 June 2022

We chat to Dr Joel Houdet, a Senior Research Fellow and key associate of the ALLI to find out a little bit more about his passion for biodiversity. Dr Houdet is an internationally recognised expert on business and biodiversity, as well as on natural capital measurement, valuation, accounting and reporting. He has advised more than 50 major companies and international organisations / governments over 13 years.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Reunion Island, a four-hour plane trip east of Johannesburg. Always passionate about biodiversity and rewilding, I completed my Bachelor of Sciences at Rhodes University in the early 2000s and went to the University of Adelaide for my BSc Honours degree on ecological restoration. From there, I realized that I needed to get a better understanding of how the private sector - the biggest driver of biodiversity loss - works to help it mainstream biodiversity into its operations. That led me to study accounting for a while (in Melbourne) before starting my first job as a research engineer in Paris for a think tank working on various sustainability issues, notably the business and biodiversity nexus. A few years later, I completed my PhD on accounting for biodiversity and ecosystem services and then decided to move back to South Africa, my spiritual home. I’ve been working as a consultant for the past 13 years, advising more than 50 major companies and international organisations / governments on natural capital measurement, valuation, accounting and reporting / disclosure.

2. Many consider you a biodiversity expert, what led you to become so passionate about the degradation of biodiversity in the World?

My passion for biodiversity is intrinsically linked to my early youth. When I grew up in Reunion Island, I was constantly confronted with the staggering extinction of species (13 bird species) and conversion of native ecosystems (almost all lowland forests) since human arrival several centuries ago. This led me to question the status quo and seek alternative development pathways for our human communities.

However, though some people might consider I am a biodiversity expert, it is far from accurate. I know very little about ecosystem dynamics and the biology of species. My drive for biodiversity mainstreaming has led me to bridge seemingly isolated issues: I have become an expert in the business and biodiversity nexus, which requires wrestling with various fields of science and practice, including (but not limited to) financial accounting, management accounting, reporting / disclosure, taxation, micro-economics, biodiversity measurement / valuation / accounting / reporting, restoration ecology, mitigation hierarchy, protected area law and management, etc.

3. What is the current big ongoing debate about biodiversity

There are many debates in the biodiversity world. We have just come out of two major ones, acting as barriers to corporate action on biodiversity: (a) biodiversity is too complex an issue to measure while (b) aggregating meaningful information across areas or sites was thought impossible. We have come a long way since then, notably with the Biological Diversity Protocol, the first standardised accounting framework which enables any organisation, from any sector, to identify, measure, account for and consolidate its impacts on biodiversity for various business applications, from site management and internal reporting to external mandatory and/or voluntary disclosures. Currently, there is a new controversy emerging. It is linked to the rise of various “nature positive” / “net positive” biodiversity targets, pushed by various stakeholders which use biodiversity footprint approaches which cannot be linked to spatially explicit biodiversity features. Beyond whether they use scientifically robust baselines, their focus is on managing environmental pressures (e.g., GHG or water emissions) without verifying whether there is any commensurate positive change in the state of biodiversity on the ground.

4. What is your view of the role leadership plays or should play in biodiversity

We need private and public sector leaders who have the integrity, courage and will to own up the extent of biodiversity loss which their organisations and policies are responsible for. To be transparent about it and invest financial and human resources in reversing trends, ecological restoration, and rewilding.

5. What can the average person do, to leave a footprint or make an impact in sustaining biodiversity.

There is nothing new or innovative I could mention here. I believe in the power of collective action, in the need for the public and private sectors to demonstrate leadership in implementing alternative development pathways. The onus should not be on individuals, especially those with limited options or choices.

Dr Joel Houdet


- Author Joel Robert Houdet