Trend: Companies warm to nature-based solutions

In the challenging quest to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, experts are turning to a solution that’s as old as the trees: actual trees. Nature-based solutions are finding their place in food production, disease prevention, air filtration, water purification, waste minimization and other processes.

“Nature-based solutions are interventions which use nature and the natural functions of healthy ecosystems to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time,” says the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization. “These types of solutions help to protect the environment but also provide numerous economic and social benefits.”

The idea of using mighty maples, ponderous pines, majestic evergreens and other arboreal wonders to absorb greenhouse gases is hardly new. For years, everyone from school-age kids to corporate executives has embraced the idea, a concept that’s easily understood and in which nearly everyone can participate.

Actually, tree planting has been at the center of a larger set of so-called “nature-based solutions” that harness the power of ecosystem services to mitigate effects of the climate crisis. A global effort is shaping up to bring awareness to nature-based solutions that increase resilience and carbon capture while addressing a wide range of social and environmental challenges.

Companies are lining up to participate, often as part of business alliances aimed at supporting nature-based solutions. A few leadership firms are working directly with local governments and communities around the world to leverage nature’s inherent genius.

Regulating the climate is just one of many services provided by healthy natural systems. All of these opportunities are coming under the gaze of business and sustainability groups seeking to advance these relatively simple tools.

There’s significant potential here. More than 30 percent of the cost-effective tools to address climate change by 2030 can be found in nature-based solutions and the shift to more sustainable agriculture and land use choices, according to a 2019 report from the Food and Land Use Coalition (FALU).

FALU is part of a larger coalition of nearly 40 organizations, Business for Nature, whose goal is “to reverse nature loss and restore the planet’s vital natural systems on which economies, well-being and prosperity depend.” Its members include the World Economic Forum, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the We Mean Business Coalition, the International Chamber of Commerce and other groups representing companies on nearly every continent.

Business for Nature lays out the rationale for companies to support nature-based solutions. It points out that nature loss has concrete and immediate costs and risks for businesses, including operational risks; supply chain continuity, predictability and resilience risks; liability risks; and regulatory, reputational, market and financial risks.

So far, more than 350 companies have made commitments to help reverse nature loss and restore vital natural systems on which economic activity depends. Most of these commitments are through business partnerships.

The opportunities for applying nature-based solutions to companies, cities and communities are seemingly endless. In the built environment, for example, nature-based solutions include managing rainwater through green roofs, ponds and wetlands to improve the climate resilience of buildings and infrastructure. In agriculture, they include regimes to protect and pay for nature, especially tropical rainforests, and supporting the indigenous communities whose wisdom is critical to their stewardship.

Air pollution is yet another problem where nature-based solutions can help. A study led by Ohio State University found that in 75 percent of the countries assessed, it was cheaper to use plants to mitigate air pollution than using technological inventions such as smokestack scrubbers. “The fact is that traditionally, especially as engineers, we don’t think about nature; we just focus on putting technology into everything,” said Bhavik Bakshi, lead author of the study and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State.

Which brings us back to trees. As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, many countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the plans put forward to reduce emissions — include nature-based solutions. For example, more than half of the NDCs from 75 developing countries or emerging economies establish one or more goals in the forest sector, according to WWF, including targets for afforestation, reforestation and restoration, and for increasing forest cover.

Will other companies go out on a limb to launch similar efforts? They may have no choice. As the business case for nature-based solutions becomes clear, such investments likely will become part of companies’ climate strategies — not to mention their efforts to succeed on a rapidly degrading planet.

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