At this summer’s Oxford University Nature-Based Solutions (NbS) Digital Dialogues , a conversation between top scientists in the field took a deeper dive into the opportunities and hazards of NbS to address climate change. This timely conversation highlighted how we as policy makers, corporate leaders, environmentalists and the general public gravitate towards simple solutions and prefer to adopt cures that require the least of us. The conversation also shone a light on the danger of assuming that climate change can be addressed with NbS and without decarbonization of the world’s economy. A video of the dialogue can be found here and the 90-minute investment of time is well worth it for those seeking a deeper knowledge of the issue, the possibilities and the challenges.
The private sector’s embrace of NbS to address climate change is of specific interest to the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) and its members who span the value chain. With the support of ArcelorMittal, WHC has been engaged in a year-long exploration of how and where the private sector can use its own lands for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The exploration started with a simple question that was based on an ongoing frustration about the disparity between corporate action on climate and corporate action on biodiversity.
Could the private sector be persuaded to adopt NbS on its own lands for climate mitigation and adaptation purposes and in so doing generate uplift for biodiversity at the same time?
They should, considering the facts. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Reports have positioned biodiversity collapse on its risk matrix of highly likely and highly impactful events beside climate change for the past three years. According to an IPBES report,the loss of pollinators alone will cost the annual global economy between $235 billion and $577 billion which, as an example, is the same/more than the market capitalization of General Motors, Toyota, Ford and FCA combined.
Despite this, the biodiversity crisis receives less than 8 times less media coverage and nature-based solutions receive only 3% of climate finance. In addition, while the private sector has embraced the concept of responsibility for its scope three emissions for carbon by setting carbon reduction goals for the impacts of their products along the supply chain, it has not done the same with biodiversity where impacts and ‘materiality’ remain narrowly defined. This dichotomy in the definition of materiality was the main subject of my State of Corporate Conservation address in 2019.
Given the lack of investment in the biodiversity crisis and the focus on climate change by the corporate sector, it makes sense that NbS is an attractive solution as biodiversity benefit can —with a well-designed project— be gained from climate action. Like a parent hiding vegetables in a kid’s meal or a veterinarian administering pills wrapped in peanut butter to a wary animal, nature can be slyly mainstreamed into operations as a climate solution with caveats on scale and impact.
For the agricultural and forestry sectors the potential of NbS for climate, or Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) is the most significant – where reversing deforestation in the tropics and removing land from inefficient uses are two powerful actions that need to be taken. But for other industries not engaged in extracting value from the top 3 feet of the lithosphere, opportunities abound to take some climate action using nature. These local or site-based opportunities can result in meaningful outcomes for climate, biodiversity, employees and community members. The human dimension aspect of site-based NCS can be a powerful driver to engage stakeholders in acts that are positive, practical and personal.
There are many options for private sector engagement in NCS for both climate mitigation (reduce GHG) and climate adaptation.
A few of the easiest options are:
- Invest in soil health: From a corporate campus to a factory or a mine site, the private sector has significant amounts of soil under its control, most of it degraded from operations or lands management. Globally, soils have a potential to sequester 5.5 G/t Co2/year mostly from better managed croplands and grasslands, but all soils will sequester more carbon when managed to do so.
- Make smart forestry decisions: The focus on reforestation and afforestation for carbon sequestration is driving a “gold rush” as companies race to adopt ambitious forestry targets with little of the nuance needed to support them. Monoculture commodity forestry done for a speedy and financial return at the expense of native and diverse forests represent a backward step and a maladaptive practice. The identification of “marginal” lands for forestry projects risks displacing indigenous people and subsistence farmers. Smart forestry decisions include looking at a company’s own lands and exploring how it can contribute to the health of the local watershed or ecosystem, to the local community or the a municipal or regional canopy goal.
- Connect across the fence-line: A manufacturing site or a storage facility can be the biggest risk item in a community’s review of its resilience against climate-related weather events. Green infrastructure designed to absorb storm surges, natural buffers designed to protect structures, softened shorelines that can accept rising sea-levels, and ecologically adaptive landscapes can all lessen the burden on communities that are most at risk of climate-related events.
- Integrate NbS with SDGs and other corporate commitments: We need an “all of the above” approach to the twin environmental crises of climate change and biodiversityfacing our planet and we need to design solutions that will also address inequities in health, education and access to resources. The power of the SDGs is in the recognition that all our global challenges are interconnected, and that maladaptation is a real concern when one solution is promoted above all others. By considering how NbS can integrate into the SDGs, multiple benefits are realized and maladaptation is avoided. In a recently published WHC white paper, we found many points of integration between corporate conservation action and the SDGs.
- Mainstream nature into operations: An environmental management system that views nature as a tool instead of something to be “dealt with” could change lands management across all corporate landholdings and cause biodiversity to be mainstreamed. By adopting a “with nature” approach, a specific operation can assess its nature needs and opportunities, and the company as a whole can show that it is acting for the planet on its own premises.
Beyond these simple options there are of course offsets and markets and green bonds and all types of other sophisticated mechanisms that deploy nature for climate change. But, at the end of the pragmatic spectrum where implementation occurs, corporate action with NbS/NCS should adopt three tenets: (1) that either/or is not an option, (2) that all NbS action should be beyond compliance, and (3) that biodiversity should be designed into all NbS efforts. As Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen said at the Digital Dialogues, “The land as a whole has a vital role to play in climate change.” It’s up to the private sector, its stakeholders and shareholders to deploy it in the right way.