nature-based solutions - benefits nature and society

Nature-based Solutions – a possible path to business

In recent years, businesses increasingly recognise that they rely on nature for ecosystem services that underpin their activities or would put them at risk if disappearing. Perhaps Nature-based Solutions could be a tool for developing future – truly sustainable – businesses? This text explores some of these opportunities. But first, what is Nature-based Solutions?

Working in the bioeconomy arena, I have been hearing about Nature-based Solutions for some years. Especially in the context of arriving at ”green solutions”, that are focused on developing climate smart solutions. However, it was only recently that I realized that, ‘Nature-based solutions’ is not just another way of saying ‘bio-based’ as opposed to ‘fossil-based’. ‘Nature-based Solutions’ is actually a concept that has been coined within fairly recently. Since around 2015 researchers, have pondered on how to actually define it, and operationalise it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has made a great body of work and in the summer of 2020 published a global standard for Nature-based Solutions (which they abbreviate NbS). The ambition is that the standard can serve as a tool to design, verify, and upscale NbS.

There is not yet complete consensus about what Nature-Based solutions actually is. However, all revolve around the same overarching ideas. IUCN define Nature-based Solutions as:

“actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”

Illustration from IUCN showing what Nature-based Solutions entail.

The European Commission has pushed for Nature-Based Solutions (abbreviated NBS) for some years, and with the biodiversity strategy from 2020, the Green Deal and Horizon Europe (the research and innovation Framework 2021-2027), the European Commission envision NBS to play a major role in the societal transition in Europe. They define Nature-Based Solutions as:

inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience. Such solutions bring more, and more diverse, nature and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes and seascapes, through locally adapted, resource-efficient and systemic interventions. – Hence, nature-based solutions must benefit biodiversity and support the delivery of a range of ecosystem services.

As I understand it, both definitions say that nature-based solutions deliver benefits for both nature and society within a solution. Thus, nature-based solutions are not an off-set strategy, but are actions that on one side provide tangible and measurable benefits for biodiversity and/or ecosystems and on the other provide some benefits to humans.

The differences in the definitions are somehow reflecting divergent views on the balance between the benefits. Should the nature-based solutions focus primarily on benefits for people, society or businesses or should they focus on contributions to halt biodiversity loss, ecosystem restoration and integrity?

It can be viewed as a spectrum, and solutions at the endpoints provide benefits either to nature or to society and basically is solely “do no harm” to the other. Depending on the definition, the span to the right-hand side considered nature-based solutions, will vary.

Nature-based solutions should be integrated solutions providing benefits for both biodiversity/ecosystems and society. How much a solution benefit either of the two, is key in determining if a solutions is actually a nature-based solution. (own graphic)

Examples of Nature-based solutions

In the European Union the European Commission engaged experts to conduct an analysis of nature-based solutions that had been implemented as part of EU funded projects.  

These examples include renaturing landfill sites, restoration of catchments and coastal landscapes, making green roofs and walls in urban areas, increase cycle and pedestrian green routes, using tree planting in cities for shade, cooling and relaxation. Other examples from various organisations often include focus on the climate mitigation effects as well as restoration.

The colour is green – but what is the benefit for biodiversity or the ecosystems?
– A green solution is not always a nature-based solution.

Why a green solution is not necessarily also a nature-based solution

Case: The case of green roofs – it might and it might not be a true nature-based solution

A group of trees, a field of grass, or other nice and green looking areas seem to be obvious cases of nature-based solutions.

However, just because the result looks green, it does not make it a nature-based solution by default!

In a research paper (Eggermont et al, 2015) the researchers provide an example:

Green roofs and other green surfaces in urban areas might have positive climate impact but if the green roof or wall is covered by only very few species of plants, that doesn’t belong to the area, then it is very limited, how much the area is contributing to the local biodiversity. E.g. if insects are not able to feed on the plants or get nectar from the flowers. Introduced plant species might also spread uncontrolled to adjacent parks or other green areas and thus outcompete the natural flora. If the seeds were all coming from only a few strains then the genetic diversity is low, and the plants might have low tolerance to drought or diseases. Should an event hit the area, they all suffer.

Thus on city level, the variety across rooftops becomes important to ensure the resilience and diversity in the implemented solution and thus the benefit for nature.

Case: re-forestation looks green, but may not be a true nature-based solution

Reforestation initiatives have been established as a climate change mitigation effort, that capture carbon and also provide biomass for bioenergy. However, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sees the decades-long afforestation policy in Chile running from 1974 to 2012 as a case of a poorly designed tree-planting initiative. It has resulted in widespread tree plantations for valuable commodities and replaced native forests, causing a loss of biodiversity and natural carbon sinks. So, the new forests may look green, and they do capture CO2, but they are not providing additional benefits for nature.

How can nature-based solutions be a business?

Perspectives for businesses
Many businesses depend on ecosystem services in their activities, either directly or through inputs that depend on ecosystems. Also, many businesses have impacts on nature through e.g. emissions, water, energy, land-use or waste-streams.

A large variety of ecosystem services can be enhanced by Nature-based Solutions. And I believe there is still much to gain by using the NBS framework for developing new solutions, not only for the benefit of society, but also for businesses. NBS business model is still in its infancy and examples need to be showcased. There are challenges in developing a NBS business, some of which are pointed at below.

Business challenge: The benefits of Ecosystem services and biodiversity are often free
You are right in thinking, that it can be a challenge to come up with NBS concepts that would be a economic viable business in itself. And there are several reasons, one of which is that ecosystem  services are often seen as externalities and usually not paid for. This means that you do not pay to utilize ecosystem services in your business. E.g. the apple plantation does not pay for the bees to pollinate the apple-blossom (at least not in Europe). So, a plantation owner would often forget about this benefit. On the other hand, if the owners are aware that this is a key ecosystem service on which the business rely, they might want to minimize risk by e.g. ensuring a nice variety of flowers among the apple trees that keep the insects happy their entire growth season and lifecycle.

Guaranteeing pollinating insects are around helps the plantation, but it might also benefit the neighbouring farmers or plantations. Even though they benefit, it is difficult to sell the service to them, or have them pay a share of the cost. 

As biodiversity and ecosystem services often are unpaid benefits, and often not restricted to a smaller area with a single owner, it makes it difficult to realise the business case. However, as for the case of green roofing, going from a roof to a city of level perspective opens up for selling a range of plants or grouped into ‘mini-habitats’ that can benefit various organisms.

Businesses providing nature-based solutions in the making

Here is what I would consider an example of a nature-based business:

Case: Production of mussels for clean water

Along the Danish coasts there is a lot of nutrients in the water. Partly due to the run-off of fertilizer from farmland. A concept has been developed to farm mussels in these waters. Not with the purpose of producing mussels for meals but as a way of removing nutrients from the water, as a ‘cleaning service’. If the purpose is removal of as much biomass as possible, then the producer will not ensure the mussels have ample of space to develop into a large fleshy size, and thus remove growth from the lines during the growing period, etc. It is still experimental, and not yet a viable business.

production of mussels can enhance a coastal ecosystem, remove nutrients from the water and provide food feed
Production of mussels can enhance a coastal ecosystem, remove nutrients from the water as well as providing food and feed.

The largest of the mussels can be harvested for food, but there is still no valuable products to be made from the rest of the mussels of odd sizes. However, if the agriculture farmers had to pay a fee for the nutrient removal it would be economically feasible and thus be a perfect example of a NBS business. The mussels filters microalgae out of the water, the microalgae thrive with the high nutrient load. Removing the microalgae makes the water clearer. This improves the conditions for bottom living algae and plants and improves the oxygen levels in the water. All of which also benefit fish and other animals in the coastal zone. The production is taking place in rural/coastal areas and would benefit the local employment and local economy.

The transition into a bio-based future will probably lead to good ideas for how to use the shells and meat of the smaller mussels, and I predict that we will see this type of mussel farming in the future.

Other ecosystem services or resources could become a business

Fresh water is increasingly a scarce resource. However, rainwater is often seen as a problem and is expensive to pipe out of urban areas. Thus new businesses might probably emerge that can utilise rainwater to ensure clean water for business activities, drinking, bathing etc., within city boundaries as well as securing clean water flowing into natural systems.

With a little creativity, I am sure other new innovative businesses can be develop that not only “do-no-harm” to nature, but actually is economically profitable, benefit people while also improving the situation for nature.

Why we cannot increase our dependence on nature – even by a modest 2 % per year…

The other day, I read an almost 100 year old article in one of the first Danish scout magazines. It was fun to read about the issues they were dealing with in establishing the scout movement, and how well perceived it was in the entire society. From a ‘BioCircular’ point of view, there was an interesting article of how scouts learned tracks and signs in nature in Denmark. It was striking to read the description of all the mammals and birds of prey that you ‘typically’ would encounter back then. Many of which are now, very rare or gone altogether from our landscapes. Changes has happened; however, as it is not in my lifetime, I do not have the baseline for comparing changes to nature over the 100 years period.

After the pandemic of COVID-19, everybody got a fair understanding of what exponential growth means. As the virus spread globally during March 2020 there was a doubling time of approximate 6 days in the registered number of cases. With that pace, it was clear that exponential growth that initially seem harmless rapidly can turn into significant numbers. Going from 10 to 80 cases might be a challenge for a large hospital in four doubling times (approximately 4 weeks) – however, going from 80 to 1,280 cases (in another four weeks) is a catastrophe.

The tricky thing about exponential growth is that it often seems insignificant in the beginning, except when doubling time is days or weeks, then, we as humans, are able to perceive, the change as substantial. When the doubling time is years or decades, then changes occur so slowly that we adapt without being conscious or do not realise it, as it would require comparison between generations. While COVID-19 spread fast, the degradation of natural systems are happing at a much slower pace. In order to grasp how different many ecosystems are today, we either need to interview old people and hear their description, or turn to data or narratives in old written records. In both cases we are limited in getting good facts about the status more than 100 years old.

I have read old descriptions of fish catch data in European water, hunting kills for fur in Greenland and the efforts of building railways and establishing farming in Kenya and the conflicts and encounters with the wildlife in those situations. Reading these today, you are amazed and cannot fathom, that it was descriptions of reality. Each person and each generation sets its own baseline for comparison. So, a change might be noticed, but as you experience a gradual change, you reset your internal base line and do not recognize the decadal change. When thinking back, you might actually recall major change in some areas compared to your childhood. Green spots that have now been developed into farming areas, roads that have been constructed or buildings put up. And that is in your life time alone…

Our society really began using natural resources about 150 years ago. Here you see depletion of a resources with a 2% growth rate per year.
Some countries have growth rates of about 7% per year. Here you see depletion of a resources with that rate.

In the above graphics you can see how fast an area would change with a 2% and 7% growth rate per year. In the beginning you see a small use and some change, and before the last doubling time, there is still 50% of the resource left. 3 doubling times before full use, only 1/8th (12 percent) has been used, and you would probably not be worried that the resource will eventual be depleted! For all our non-renewable resources, even a tiny, yet consistent increase in resource use will eventually lead to depletion.

For our biological resources, it is not as rapid depletion as depicted in the graphic. For two reasons: one, there is a continued replenishment of the resources, so that the use of the resource is to some degree counteracted from renewal – new photosynthesis production or new off-springs of organisms. The other reason is that when a resource becomes scarce, it is more difficult to find, capture, harvest or kill the remaining. Thus, a small fraction will probably survive for a longer period of time. And that is actually what we see in e.g. the numbers of a lot of game, from which there is some kind of data or estimate of previous abundance. Lions in East Africa are a good example. We still think there is an reasonably sized population of lions left, and if you go on safari in the region you stand a good chance to meet them. In my life-time, and coming to the region in the past 30 years, I have no impression that there is less – though IUCN estimate a decline of about 59% in the region. Totally, the lion population is down to about 20,000 individuals. Compared to estimates of 200,000 a hundred years ago, it is only a fraction.

What I can observe though, is that settlements are creeping in on the habitats of the lions. More houses, more cattle and goats, more farming is fenced off right at the borders of the national parks. Thus, the free movement in the larger ecosystem in which the park served as a safe-heaven has changed. Here the land is now cultivated, and only the park remains of the original ecosystem and even the park is often encroached by grazing life stock. Small changes, but added up, the have significant impact on the lions possibility to roam and live their lives. If the changes continue to grow with the same pace, the lions are confined to fragmented park areas only, and only kept in healthy genetic condition through breeding programmes.

We need to have these perspectives in mind, when discussing a transition to a new bio-based society. We can succeed and are capable of developing a fundamental new way of living, where we a sustainable in the way we utilize resources. It is a huge challenge, and it will require a lot of new thinking:
a) developing new artificial ecosystems that are somewhat decoupled from natural systems;
b) ensure that we set aside a good chunk of space for nature to unfold itself (not in our picture, but allowing it to develop as climate and other factors change);
c) only utilize the agreed amount and do not encroach the resources bit by bit;
d) do out best to develop truly sustainable business models through systems thinking.

The value of nature

For someone who loves nature it can be difficult to accept discussing the value of an ecosystem only in the context of the current utilization of the resources by humans. It is implied – and a purpose of sustainability – that a sustainable use of ecosystem resources means maintaining healthy systems – also for possible future use. Dennis Lisbjerg wrote an article in the online magazine Habitat published by Danish Zoological Society.


value of nature

You can also download the entire magazine including the article from the Danish Zoological Society website:

Do you know what bioeconomy is? take a look here


What is bioeconomy?

In 2013 Dennis wrote an article on Bioeconomy in the online magazine Habitat, published by Danish Zoological Society. It provided some indications of the perspectives for a bioeconomy.

You can find the article here.

what is bioeconomy


Since the bioeconomy strategy was adopted in EU, a lot of research and innovation effort has been put into developing new methods and products. It is great to see the creativity and to learn that even large companies are now considering bioresources and the circular thinking.

The fundament is still the ecosystems and the living resources that lives within. and it is a challenge to ensure a sustainable utilisation of nature, and to develop a frame for making cost-benefit analysis of irreversible changes that we consider doing. Read more on The value of nature.

Bio Circular

a combining form meaning “life,” “living organism,” “biology”: biodegradable.
Also, esp. before a vowel, bi-.
[comb. form of Greek bíos life]

cir•cu•lar   (sûr ky -l r)

a. Shaped like or nearly like a circle; round.
b. Moving in or forming a circle