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.